Tourists position ''eating dumplings'' on their Melbourne to-do list alongside shopping at Queen Victoria Market and asking a stranger to take a photo of them in front of Hosier Lane's street art. Melburnians are certainly proud, perhaps even a touch fanatical, about our dumplings. Ask Meiyan Wang, the ''mama'' behind the much-loved ShanDong MaMa, why we're so crazy for dumplings and her waitress will translate her beautifully simple answer: ''There is no limit of nationality or culture - good food suits everybody.''
But offer a Melburnian too much of a good thing and they'll tire of it, which is why some Chinese eateries have started to modernise the dumpling.
HuTong Dumpling Bar manager Patrick Lui says customer expectations have risen due to trips to China and increased food knowledge.
''They have had Cantonese dumplings for a long time, and then they get bored and try something new, and the popularity [of Shanghai-style dumplings] goes up,'' he says.
But dumpling traditionalists can rest easy. According to David Zhou, owner of David's restaurant and Oriental Teahouse, there is still a place for old favourites. ''You can expand, you can have whatever innovation, but the core, the authenticity, has to be there,'' he says.
Zhou has noticed a change in dumpling customs. Previously, families would feast on dumplings as a cheap and tasty meal option. Today, ''it's kind of trendy, cool, youngish. [Dumplings have] become something you have with a drink,'' he says.
On January 31, according to the Chinese calendar, we enter the Year of the Horse, an appropriate time to hunt down the best dumplings in town. Over the Chinese New Year, some of Melbourne's dumpling haunts are offering special menus, while for others it's business as usual (the Chinese believe that if a restaurant is busy over the celebratory period, the rest of the year will be prosperous).
Here are eight of Melbourne's best dumplings - contemporary and traditional - to get you in the new-year mood.
Boiled fish dumplings (10), $14.80
ShanDong MaMa, Shop 7, Mid City Arcade, 200 Bourke Street, city, 9650 3818
After following her daughter to Melbourne, Meiyan Wang - please, call her MaMa - invited Chinese expats and Aussie locals over for dinner. The feedback from all was identical: MaMa needed to open a restaurant. Wang and her daughter hail from Yantai, a fishing town on the Shandong Peninsula in eastern China, which explains why the signature fish dumplings are so damn good. Mackerel, coriander, ginger and chives are whipped into an aerated mousse and crammed inside a supple, homemade dumpling skin. They're so tasty that adding soy sauce seems a shame. Driven by the desire to appeal to local tastes, Wang has also created the Melbourne dumpling, ''inspired by Australian multicultural food scene''. It's a combination of diced prawn, calamari, mussels, fish, chicken mince, lemon rind, olive oil, garlic and parsley, tucked into a thick wrapper.
Xiao long bao (8), $11.80
HuTong Dumpling Bar, 14-16 Market Lane, Melbourne, 9650 8128
''I. Want. Dumplings!'' A small child is mid-tantrum, separating each word with a deep breath for emphasis. ''I. Want. Those. Ones!'' he says, pointing at xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumplings at HuTong that are widely regarded as the best in Melbourne. Thick dumpling wrappers are twisted into a point to hold the precious soup sloshing around the pork and prawn filling. Stock mixed with gelatine is chopped into cubes and wrapped into each parcel, and it turns to liquid once steamed. The preparation method technically makes xiao long bao a bun rather than a dumpling, but the untrained eye won't pick the difference, even if you closely watch the cooks whipping them up in the glassed-in kitchen. You're supposed to pick up a xiao long bao at its peak with your chopsticks, place it on your spoon, then slurp the hearty broth over the bowl. Just be careful not to burn your mouth.
Fried pork dumplings (15), $9.20
Shanghai Street Dumpling, 342 Little Bourke Street, city, 9600 2250
It's uncommon to walk into a non-air-conditioned dumpling joint on a 41-degree day after the lunch rush and still have to sit at a bench seat in the window. Granted, Shanghai Street Dumpling is small (you won't fit more than 25 people inside), but it's just as popular as its larger Chinatown counterparts. The restaurant is basic, but peak-hour lunch queues would obscure any features worth mentioning. The attraction is obvious: less than a tenner gets you 15 fried comets chucked on a plate with little regard for appearance but utter respect for flavour. The pork and chive filling rattles inside the golden-fried casing, which would be a delight on its own, or perhaps with ice-cream. These babies are chin-drippers - best prepare yourself with napkins.
Scallop dumplings (3), $7.50
Tao Tao House, 815 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, 9818 0968
Tao Tao House is a poorly kept Hawthorn secret; locals can't resist introducing friends to their favourite yum cha restaurant. Forget the purple colour scheme and consider the credentials - chef and co-owner Jason Au crafted dim sum at Flower Drum for 20 years, and then at Golden Dragon Palace for five, making dumplings the main draw. The scallop variety is particularly outstanding. Each mouthful is a taste of the ocean - plump scallop pieces snugly secured in a thin, translucent wrapper, pulled together tortellini-style and bulked up with a subtle helping of perfectly cooked prawns. Siu mai are also worth a mention, with chunks of either pork and prawn, chicken and prawn, or scallop bursting out of these open-topped, yellow-skinned classics. Eight dollars won't score you a plate overflowing with dumplings, but it will get you impeccable quality. It's not hard to taste the difference.
Pan-fried veg dumplings (15), $11
1+1 Dumpling Noodles, 84 Hopkins Street, Footscray, 9687 8988
Any self-respecting carnivore will tell you that vegetarian dumplings are inferior to their meat-filled counterparts. This is far from the truth at 1+1 Dumpling Noodles, a simple but modern Chinese restaurant where bright-red ceiling panels and an even brighter yellow feature wall rule the decor. One serve of veg dumplings delivers a plate brimming with green, pan-fried parcels that crunch as you bite through thick undersides that have had a fling with the pan. Inside are meticulously chopped Asian greens spruced up with chives, vegetarian oyster sauce and flecked with tiny pieces of fried tofu. Steamed lamb buns also deserve recognition - podgy pillows containing chunks of meat pimped with pepper, onion and a hit of cumin. On Sunday, February 2, 1+1 Dumpling Noodles will be stall-side at the East Meets West Lunar New Year Festival, in Footscray's main drag. Swing by for authentic dumplings, skewers and great big smiles.
Har gau steamed prawn dumplings (3), $11
Spice Temple, Crown Entertainment Complex, Shop 7, Southbank, 8679 1888
Is it possible to have a love affair with a dumpling? The flawless har gau at Neil Perry's Spice Temple would suggest it's inevitable. What this yum cha lacks in trolleys, it makes up for in finesse. Low-hanging tubular lights, dark timbers and the warm glow emanating from the pink-stained window create a dazzling space overlooking the Yarra River. Dumplings make up a significant segment of the 40-item yum cha menu, and the har gau are to die for. Three plump, pliable globes with signature tails are loaded with prawn meat so fresh you can't help but visualise the crustaceans being peeled in the kitchen. Braised lamb shoulder pot-stickers containing the kind of meat that melts off the bone in a traditional roast, sweet strips of cabbage and specks of chilli also demand a spot on the table. Picking up these dense beauties with chopsticks is a feat for the unpractised, but dunking one in the special Chinese red vinegar sauce and successfully returning it to your mouth could very well be the reason humans were blessed with opposable thumbs. From now until Sunday, February 9, head chef Ben Pollard will be running a special Chinese New Year banquet. At $95, the 10-course menu features dishes that promote family unity (northern-style pork buns) and fidelity (crisp ''lucky duck'' with steamed bread, shallots and hoisin).
Beef dumplings (15), $8.50
Eastern Dumpling House, 132 Koornang Road, Carnegie, 9530 9141
SLAP. That's the sounds of the owners and staff playing cards at Eastern Dumpling House. You'll see them in action if you swing by just before the kitchen closes - the best time to avoid the crowds and dig into pan-fried beef dumplings like nobody is watching. The dumplings, with moreish beef, celery and onion filling, are more scoffable than refined. Gorge on them when in need of a fix, but be wary of the juice that squirts from these shark-fin-shaped balls of goodness. The same way you don't judge a book by its cover, don't judge Eastern Dumpling House by its blue-and-cream bamboo wallpaper. Judge it by its dumplings.
White chocolate dumplings (3), $9
David's, 4 Cecil Place, Prahran, 9529 5199
The white chocolate dessert dumplings at David's are a revelation - sticky rice spheres with the perfect amount of chewiness, each hiding a melted nucleus of white chocolate, and finished with a generous sprinkling of buttery desiccated coconut and peanut crumbs. During David's all-you-can-eat yum cha at weekends, waitstaff serve piles of dessert dumplings from a tray. They're available from Oriental Teahouse stores, but David's will deliver locally. Roast duck dumplings are equally addictive. David's is offering a special Chinese New Year menu from now until Sunday, February 9. Once you've worked your way through crisp-skin roast pork belly and soft-shell crab with rice cakes, be sure to finish with the signature white chocolate dumplings.