Thursday, 7 July 2011

Dumplings for dummies

I thought it'd be appropriate to follow up my noodle post with one about dumplings. Not all dumplings are created equal, and there are so many types available it's pretty easy to get them confused. Here's a bit of a guide, and again, some of my favourite places to sample these around town.

Yum cha dumplings
The only place we bother going for yumcha is Sun World Newmarket. Everywhere else I've tried has only been disappointing in comparison. And judging by how many non-Chinese patrons they regularly get nowadays, obviously the secret is out... Plus, free parking in the Rialto carpark for two hours if you buy something at the fruit & vege or tofu shop! Can't really beat that for convenience...

Yum cha or dim sum dumplings are really a whole category of their own, with quite a few different types. Generally they are made with a thin, slightly sticky, slightly translucent (if it's well-made) rice flour wrapper, and steamed. This is not a comprehensive listing, but just some of my favourites or most common ones.

Pork dumplings (siu mai)
This one is an exception to the rice-wrapper rule - pork mince mixed with chunks of pork fat, and encircled with a thin, bright yellow skin made of egg and flour. If poorly made it can be tough and chewy, but with the right amount of pork fat cut into the mince, it's tender and flavoursome. You shouldn't really have yum cha at all if you're adverse to pork fat, as it's an ingredient in the majority of the items sold...
Above was taken in HK, the ones in Sun World actually look & taste even better

Prawn dumplings (har gao)
Along with pork dumplings, prawn dumplings are probably the second most popular yum cha item, and used to be commonly sold together with the 'HAR-GAO-SIU-MAI!' refrain. A good prawn dumpling should only contain prawn and bamboo shoot, but more than a few restaurants cheap out by bulking this out with some pork mince, so remember to watch out for that! I can vouch for the deliciousness of the prawn dumplings at Sun World though, definitely a high-quality version.

Chive dumplings (gou choi gao)
One of my favourite dim sums, the filling is made up of Chinese chives, pork mince and a bit of prawn, which is very flavourful and fragrant, but tends to leave you with a bit of chive-breath (not unlike garlic breath). Totally worth it though!
Chive dumplings from Sun World - photo doesn't do it justice really

Peanut dumplings (chiu jau fun gwor)
Pork mince, bamboo, some other flavourings and a thicker rice flour wrapper makes this a bit different from the other dim sum dumplings. I personally am not a fan due to the strangeness of having the hard peanut amongst the rest of the soft filling, but it's always one we order for my dad and James. Apparently great dipped in chilli oil (though apparently everything is great dipped in chilli oil).

Okay, back to non-yum cha dumplings. The rest of these are typically wrapped in a round wrapper made from wheat flour, with a variety of fillings and serving methods - but usually just plain pork, or pork and chives.

Sichuan-style dumplings
The best version of this we've had of this is from 555 Dominion Rd. Even though the filling is comprised of only pork, it's perfectly seasoned and served with a spicy, tangy sauce that has so much flavour you don't really need to douse the dumpling in vinegar as per usual. Pair this with a bowl of small dandan noodles, and you've got yourself an awesome cheap dinner.
Sichuan-style dumplings from 555 Dom Rd

Dumplings in hot & sour soup
We've had this in a few different places in lieu of the Sichuan-style dumpling, and so far the winner is Happy Time Restaurant, 650 Dominion Rd. The sheen of bright red chilli oil may be a bit offputting at first, but you can easily scoop that aside if you prefer (as I did). Xian Food Bar actually did a pretty shoddy job of this dish, the dumplings were overcooked and falling apart while the soup was frankly quite bland. However, Happy Time delivered on both the soup flavour and dumpling texture/filling aspects, we'll definitely be back just for this dish!
Okay, you can hardly see them, but underneath that chilli oil are some delicious dumplings, from Happy Time Restaurant (not joking, that's what it's really called), 650 Dominion Rd

Shanghai style dumplings
These are a bit classier than your regular, rustic pork and chive dumplings. The filling is still (surprise, surprise) pork, but what makes a Shanghai-style dumpling special is the burst of hot soup that will go all over the table or your plate if you don't pick this up carefully enough not to break the dumpling skin before it gets into your mouth. I've been told the trick to getting the soup instead is to freeze it before wrapping along with the pork mince. Then viola, the soup reverts to liquid form when steamed - ingenious! Any decent Shanghainese restaurant should be able to do a good version of these, but the best we've had in Auckland was probably from Show Restaurant in 16 Kilham Ave, Northcote.

[UPDATE: A great place to go is Yi Ping Xiang in Dominion Rd, very cheap on the lunch menu.]
Shanghai-style dumplings, this was actually from HK Airport believe it or not

We should also give credit to the pre-made frozen dumplings, widely available at nearly all Chinese supermarkets and fruit & vege shops. I recommend the Siu Cheong ones, and I usually get the pork and chives, but really they're all pretty good - even the vegetarian one. I can't remember the exact price but I'm pretty sure you can get a massive tray for under or around $10. It's a great thing to keep in the freezer for a quick snack or meal. Make sure you get some dumpling sauce or just Chinese vinegar to go with it as well, I recommend this one:
Apologies for the crap photo... Tip: if it has that yellow starburst by the left of the image, means it's the spicy version

To cook the dumplings from frozen, simply turn the stove onto high, heat up a little bit of oil in a non-stick frypan, and make sure you have some boiling water handy (I usually just put the jug on). Place the frozen dumplings in the pan however you like but making sure they're not touching, then pour in the boiling water until it comes to maybe a third of the way up the sides of the dumplings. Slap a lid on, and just leave it until pretty much all the water's evaporated, about 5-10 mins. This steams and fries the dumplings at the same time. Once all the moisture's gone though, remove the lid and keep a close eye on it or turn the heat way down, otherwise they'll start to burn pretty quickly! Remove from pan as you prefer, or when the skin that's been on the pan turns a golden-brown. If you want to be a bit healthier you can also just chuck frozen dumplings in some salted boiling water for about 10 mins until cooked through. 

Finally, if you are feeling adventurous and want to make your own at home, here's a recipe I got from my mum, though I suspect something's missing because the last time I tried it, just didn't turn out as well... still, a good start though:

200g pork mince
2 small bunches Chinese chives (available from all fruit & vege shops owned by Chinese people - looks like bunches of grass)
1 packet dumpling pastry (you can find these in the fridges of pretty much all Chinese supermarkets, they come in these dual-round plastic packets)
1 egg
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp corn starch
1 tsp Chinese cooking wine
2 tsp oyster sauce

Set aside the pastry. Separate the egg, and set aside the egg white. Mix the yolk and all the other ingredients together until well combined. Put spoonfuls of the pork mixture into the middle of the round dumpling pastry. Brush some egg white (or water) around the inside edges of the pastry so they stick together, then fold in half to stick the sides together to form a crescent-shaped dumpling.

That's pretty much it. If you're not going to cook them right away, chuck them in the freezer to keep it fresh until needed. Make sure you sprinkle some corn starch in between each one so they don't stick to each other. And feel free to experiment with the recipe! I have seen some pretty crazy dumpling recipe books which include ingredients like pineapple or tomato (personally not that keen to try these), but obviously it's easy to swap the meat to beef or lamb, and use some different veges like Shanghai cabbage or even pickled ones, and tweak the seasonings to your own taste. Personally I'd stick to Asian ingredients though, otherwise why not just make pasta?

Overall, given how cheap you can buy dumplings either pre-made at the Chinese supermarket, or even totally prepared and served to you on a plate (typically something like 20 for $8), there's almost no point going to all the effort of making it yourself, except for novelty value. 

I hope that's been a good explanation or braindump (haha) of my dumpling knowledge, I haven't even had the chance to visit and review Barilla Dumpling (another Balmoral eatery) yet, nor have I mentioned Japanese-style 'gyoza', though I tend to find these not as good as actual Chinese dumplings, given they are just a derivative from the original. And let's not even get into the Eastern European 'dumplings' I sampled in Hungary and Czech Republic... no idea what Chinese word would be used to describe those, but they're definitely not anywhere in the same league as the above!

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