Chinese Dumplings – Where to get the best of ‘em in China
Puffy, fluffy, flavoursome entities of pleasure. How awesome are Chinese dumplings? But if you’re travelling to this amazeballs country and have a penchant for the local cuisine, you’ll need to know your stuff. Fried, boiled or steamed, laden with meats or veg, crescent-shaped, round or decidedly formless, dumplings in China are almost a food group in their own right.
So if you’re ready to become a chopstick-toting zen master, grab your tourist map (it’ll help you plan your foodie journey) and let’s take a look at some of the types of dumplings well worth demolishing and where you’ll find ‘em.
1 Guo Tie or Jiaozi
Often referred to as ‘pot-stickers’, these ingot-shaped morsels are made from thinly rolled dough, pan-fried for a crispy derrière and then steamed to doneness on top. They’re a crustier, thicker-skinned version of the shui jiao and are a delightfully two-fold textural experience. Usually filled with pork and bokchoy, leeks or cabbage, they’re the ultimate in Chinese comfort food.
Head to Shanghai for a local version (there are restaurant chains devoted to them) or if in downtown Kaili, head to Wenhua Beilu. Here you’ll find experts serving steaming trays of these babies with a side of dipping sauce that’s to die for. (Made from roasted, crushed chillies, spring onions, soy, vinegar, sesame oil and Sichuan pepper, in case you’re interested).
These are unsealed, money-bag-shaped titbits, that vent glorious steam from the fillings exposed on top. Originating from inner Mongolia, they’re stuffed full of flavoured sticky rice or just about anything meat or veg-like. Try a perfectly herbed pork variety in downtown Chengdu or if you’re after a heftier version with additional fungi (mushrooms to the amateur), head to the Yangtze River region.
For a smaller, visually stunning option (that resembles a luminescent piece of jade), head to Beijing’s Duyichu Shaomai, a specialty restaurant patronised by the Emperor Qianlong himself in the 1750s. These works of art feature a range of seasonal fillings encased in a frilly, paper-thin wrapper of flour.
Invented in Nanxiang, there are a number of incarnations of these translucent, steamy bun-like beauties, most of which are made from unraised flour and filled with cubes of gelatinised broth (sounds gross, but not) and tender pork, seafood, roe or fresh vegies. They’re then steamed to perfection and spa-bathed in a liquefied version of brothiness.
Xiaolongbao are the rock stars of dumplings and you’ll find a smorgasbord of variety on every man and his dog’s menu throughout China. If in doubt, head to Shanghai central for an unforgettable hit of these sumptuous, soupy pockets.
Another version of the bun-that-steams, these are traditionally filled with meat, onions and carrots with a hint of either star anise or nutmeg for flavour.
If you’re on a train from Urumqi to Lanzhou, stalk platform vendors for a freshly steaming bag or take a visit to Kunming, where you’ll discover trays and trays of ‘em served with hot pepper, vinegar, soy sauce and fresh coriander dipping sauces.
A somewhat under-appreciated dumpling, Xinjiang-style versions are filled with mutton and undeniably delectable. Check out road-side shacks downtown but prepare, fellow foodie, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad one. Which is good.
Alternatively, make your way to Kashgar for a seasonal (Autumn) and meat-hater variety that features sweet, diced pumpkin served with roasted pepper, sesame oil and creamy yoghurt.
These Tibetan delicacies come in all shapes and sizes and are found just about everywhere across China. Crescent-shaped or round, their spicy fillings range from potato and minced vegies to ground chicken, yak (what?) or beef that’s been flavoured with ginger, coriander and garlic. A homemade chilli sauce completes the experience (just don’t indulge on an overnight train).
For a slightly less racy version, head to the Xiahe region and feel free to scoff a carrot and cabbage incarnation with a side of roasted capsicum sauce. (Much kinder on the … um, digestion too).
7 Tang Yuan
Round, gooey, soup dumplings, these are made from glutinous rice flour balls and devoured during the Lantern Festival (the last day of Lunar New Year Celebrations). And a little inside trivia – as is befitting of fresh starts, their shape emphasises a united family. Naw.
Popular fillings include savoury pork with green onions or a diabetic’s nightmare made from sugar and powdered peanuts. Explore restaurants in Shanghai’s Qibao Old Town for the more traditional (but no less impressive) versions.
8 Zheng Jiao
Often filled with a combination of minced meat and vegetables and steamed to doneness in a bamboo round to retain the flavours, there are countless variations of this little poppet, but all stay true to their delicateness compared to their boiled and pan-fried counterparts.
For a little Instagram jealousy, head to Shaxian, where these pork and beef-filled cuties are hand pleated to look like little mice. Bless.
9 Har Gow
Translucent and oh-so-subtly pink-tinged, these crescent-shaped morsels are filled with chubby shrimp and often referred to as the darlings of the dim sum cart. For many, Har Gow is the gateway to a lifelong obsession with dumplings. (Are there dumpling rehabs for that?)
Often referred to as ‘shrimp bonnets’, a soaking of red vinegar will bring out the flavours and for one of the better versions, head to Guangdong Province (where they were first invented) where sub-par servings simply aren’t tolerated. Cop that.
10 Sheng Jian
Shanghai wins again for the place to be seen getting your dumpling on and this traditional breakfast option is steamed to perfection on top, fried to crustiness on the bottom and eaten with vinegar.
Often studded with green onions and adorned with a sprinkling of sesame, one bite will assault you with a palate load of seasoned pork and a flood of broth. Who needs pancakes?
Inspired? I hope so, but don’t take my word for it. This list is by no means exhaustive as there are a truckload of versions and interpretations out there. Travel guides like Lonely Planet can help you board the dumpling train, or why not don your research cap and connect with past travellers or locals who will often share their culinary secrets online.
And remember, rice is nice, noodles are great, but dumplings … well, they’re just the bomb. Nuff said.