Sunday, June 30, 2013

Searching for Dumplings

I call a lot of things my 'favourite food' but there is something so perfect about a neatly formed parcel of meat (with sometimes a little vege) embedded with flavour, wrapped in dough and able to be captured in one concise mouthful.  Unlike the Italian ravioli, the Chinese dumpling is versatile in the different ways it can be cooked.  Boiled, steamed or pan-fried, it gives a myriad of sensual possibilities: from the flavour combinations, different seal-and-crimping methods (creating thinner and thicker parts within the join) to the texture which comes from the cooking technique.  (The Japanese gyoza is based on the pan-fried dumpling which, also known as 'pot-stickers', gain a chewy crust at their base while their tops are steamed - soft, with bite).

Google image search for "jiao zi"

Making and/or eating dumplings (or jiao zi餃子) is a long-loved tradition of mine for celebrating Chinese New Year.  Especially after moving out of home, I feel like I have to make a batch to share with friends every year, as if it was out of superstition.  Usually I stick to traditional Chinese flavours like minced pork with mushroom, garlic, chives, spring onion, soy sauce, sesame oil and some oyster sauce; or sometimes I'll add coriander, chilli, finely grated carrot and/or change the meat to minced lamb for a more Nepalese/Western Chinese flavour profile.  On the odd occasion, I've experimented with outright Western flavours like chicken, cranberry and brie (not bad), with the thought that you can pretty much package any great combination of flavours into a dumpling skin.

So is the opinion of my favourite dumpling house, Barilla Dumplings (571 Dominion Road, Balmoral) in Auckland who have about fifty flavours on offer (or so I'm told).  I'm lucky enough to travel to the City of Sails every now and then for work and if I can help it, I always make a call into Barilla on my way to the airport to pick up 16 steamed dumplings in the flavour of my choice (lately, pork and mushroom, $13, though prices vary depending on flavour and cooking method).  And man, these are good.  Possibly the best I have ever tasted.  The filling is consistently juicy and plump, the flavour is rounded and savoury (I can't explain what it is, but I find some dumpling fillings to be a little tart?), while the dumpling pastry is just the right thickness and just the right texture.  A perfect mouthful.  I hope soon that I'll be able to sit in and actually get the full experience of receiving my dumplings in a large bamboo steamer (what better presentation) instead of in the styrofoam container that I must wait to open excitedly in the departure lounge (though I am starting to form an attachment to this too).

Steamed pork and mushroom dumplings from Barilla Dumplings in the departure lounge

My search for a comparably amazing dumpling continued in our recent trip to Melbourne.  Hurray for Chinatowns! When we travelled back from Europe after Christmas at the start of the year, our less than 24-hour stopover in Shanghai left me deprived from eating the famous xiaolongbao (小籠包) or 'soup dumpling' (an experience I savoured on my previous trip there).  Luckily, Melbourne boasted a handful of 'Shanghai' restaurants and even more serving xiaolongbao.  We stumbled upon Shanghai Village (featured in the book/great app 'Where Chefs Eat', which I suspect is the reason for the large proportion of non-Chinese in the restaurant) on Little Bourke Street and ordered the little soup dumplings straight away.  The filling is made from a combination of seasoned minced pork mixed through with gelatinous chicken/cured ham stock so when cooked, the gelatin melts into a thick flavourful soup in which the pork filling steams.  Genius! And so sweet-looking.

Xiaolong bao at Shanghai Village, Little Bourke Street, Melbourne

We also visited Dumplings Plus on Swanston Street where we tried the pan-fried beef dumplings (and chive pancakes).  Their robust meaty flavour countered nicely with the traditional chilli soy-vinegar dipping sauce.  Unfortunately we were in-between meals so we refrained from ordering more (I wanted more xiaolongbao) but if we had more time in the city, I would definitely come back here (in fact, I realised I had been there the last time I was in Melbourne). A great feature of Dumplings Plus, however, is the clear viewing window of the dumpling ladies creating the little bundles of joy fresh for our eating pleasure.

Dumplings Plus - (above) pan-fried beef dumplings and chive pancakes; (below) view through the dumpling window (from 

Elsewhere in Melbourne, they had various other dumpling houses (we tried Hutong Dumpling Bar also) and even fast food-style chains selling a perceivably more convenient option. This all made me a tad jealous knowing that Wellington has yet to find their love/obsession for dumplings.  Vicky Ha of House of Dumplings, however, knows what I'm talking about and started her pop-up business over a year ago.  Her menu consists of seven different flavours and has received some great press.  I'm more than overdue to try it.  What I like even more is that she delivers frozen dumplings free within the Wellington CBD so this might have to be lunch one day this week.  I think I'll try the Nepalese Spiced Lamb and 5 veges flavour...

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