Pass the parcel: Sydney's best dumplings
Hot'n'steamy: Hot and sour soup with pork dumplings at Chairman Mao's in Kensington. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Mention to someone that you're writing a story on dumplings and they'll instantly purse their lips, nod their head and stare off into the distance for any time between 10 seconds and a week. It's the same thing a teenager does when mum and dad announce they're going to New Zealand for a fortnight and leaving them in charge of the house. Or when you tell a Tamworth housewife that Keith Urban's coming to town.
The Chinese have the dumpling on lockdown. Few foods garner universal appreciation like it. Not to discount the pierogi of Poland, the modak of Maharashtra or the matzah balls of Queens, but forgive me if a Tyrolean speckknoedel isn't the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a dumpling. I think jiaozi, siu mai, har gau, zing gau, fun gor, and the almighty xiao long bao.
Picture perfect: Din Tai Fung's vegetarian jiao ze dumpings. Photo: Quentin Jones
Identifying Chinese dumplings by name isn't always straightforward. Not only is there both Mandarin and Cantonese to navigate, but also a bunch of regionally specific terms for the same wrapped parcel. In the end it's often just a case of ''You say guo tie, I say wo tip. Let's call the whole thing pot-sticker.'' My advice is to dive in and go for it. You'll know your favourites soon enough. You probably do already.
Here's some other handy hints:
1. Never yum cha alone. You want to sample everything without looking like the exploding bloke in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
2. There are no rules regarding soy-to-black-vinegar ratio. Din Tai Fung recommends one part soy to three parts vinegar, but I say bollocks to that. Season and mix your condiments to personal taste.
3. Always over-order. It's a poor dumpling house that doesn't provide a takeaway container for next day's lunch.
1. Din Tai Fung
Level 1, World Square, 644 George Street, city
Xiao long bao, six for $10.80
The World Square branch of this Taiwanese franchise has a windowed kitchen where the hands of face-masked, hair-netted cooks move so fast, they could be participating in a frantic role-playing game of Operation. Instead, they're churning out thousands of xiao long bao for the families and first dates waiting to be buzzed to a table.
DTF now has Care Bear-coloured ''dumpling gems'' with names such as Ruby Bolognese, but dining here and only ordering something called Citirine Cheese would be like owning the entire Beatles catalogue and not bother listening past Yellow Submarine. Similarly, not ordering the broth-and-pork-filled xiao long bao would be like glossing over The White Album.
Pop one on your spoon, create a small lard leak with a chopstick end and consume everything at once. The porky broth isn't injected into the xiao long bao in some kind Heston Blumenthalian fiddle-fest. It's a jelly at room temperature that turns to liquid when steamed, and DTF have nailed its creation to the point of art. We thank them for it.
2. Chairman Mao
189 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Hot and sour soup with pork dumplings, $13.80
Good Hunanese is about as rare in the city as a westbound cab at 2am. To get a hit you've got to take a (kinda) Great Leap South to Chairman Mao at Kensington, where Chinese students from the nearby UNSW sit among Maoist pop art and get stuck into all things stewed, stir-fried and steamed.
I'm usually loath to label anything ''comfort food'' (I find the term conjures too many images of track pants with elasticated ankles), but here we have an exception. Next time I'm sick in bed on an autumn afternoon, I want 10cc of this subtly peppered broth, fast. The pork dumplings bob around with wonton abandon and, importantly, hold their form if a chopstick so much as even thinks about looking in their direction.
Staff drip the milk of Hunan kindness and only a fool or chilli-wuss would refuse the complimentary pickles to kick things off.
3. Mr Wong
3 Bridge Lane, city
Scallop and prawn siu mai, three for $9.80
Heavens to Murgatroyd, Mr Wong's deep-fried ice-cream ($14) is good. Does deep-fried ice-cream class as a dumpling? It's a delicious something wrapped in another something, so why not?
While the jury's still out on that one, I'll stick to the more traditional dumpling notions on chef Eric Koh's dim sum menu. It's hard to pinpoint a best here, but the scallop and prawn siu mai just edges the other guys out: spongy prawn encased by a thick wrapper that's pinched together at the top to hold a translucent scallop puck in place. Topped off by a bubble of lumpfish roe, it's amazing.
Every Sydneysider should put lunch at Wong's on their to-do list (note the dim sum menu is only available at lunch). Tuxedoed waiters, smashing teas and shabby-Shanghai-chic are only a few of the reasons. There's even foie gras prawn toast ($12), for foie's sake.
4. Sky Mountain Hand Made Noodle Restaurant
355B Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Pan-fried lamb dumplings, 14 for $11.80
Ashfield has seldom been short of a dumpling.
Yum cha at Wests Leagues Club, crab and pork buns at New Shanghai and the fish and ginger special (Mondays only) at Shanghai Dumpling are some of the many high points. I find myself drawn to the bottom end of Liverpool Street, and the north-westernish cuisine and perennially tinselled walls of Sky Mountain.
The kitchen does a crackerjack handmade noodle ($9.80) and gob-numbing Xinjiang fried chicken ($14.80), but let's talk lamb pot-stickers. These balls of lamb are first steamed in their sticky parcels, then pan-fried tightly together so they're like little dumpling lovers refusing to leave each other's arms and lacy black bottoms.
Here's where you get to play Suzy Homewrecker and break the happy couples apart, giving each a soy and vinegar bath before devouring.
5. Lotus Dumpling Bar
3/16 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Jade seafood dumplings, four for $13.80
Finally, a pre-theatre dinner spot offering cheap and fast fare without the option of upsizing your chips. And they do a great Mai Tai ($18).
Nestled across from Sydney Dance Company, Lotus Dumpling Bar is one of the newer additions to the foody-arty-thingamajiggy precinct at Walsh Bay. While it's perfect for a pre-interpretive-dance dumpling, Lotus is also splendid during the day, when natural light shows off an impressive copper bar and carefully distressed brickwork.
Jade seafood dumplings (the jadeness comes from spinach-flavoured dough) are plump with prawn, snow peas and king oyster mushrooms - the latter providing an earthy base for the sweetness of its associates. The wine list isn't at Mr Wong's encyclopaedic level, but there's still plenty of crisp Old World whites to accompany a steamed ocean perch ($28) or pepper-packing kung pao chicken ($25).
6. Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen
429B Pitt Street, city
Barbecue duck dumplings, six for $5 (frozen)
The old Ho's Kitchen could have been shipped over from a Hong Kong back alley, but after a 2012 revamp it bears more in common with a froghurt franchise than a dimly lit dim-simmery. No matter, because the dumpling quality remains untouched.
Asian food bloggers and pant-suited Mosmanites still file in here each Friday afternoon to gather frozen supplies for weekend yum cha parties. The finest of these is the barbecue duck number, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever consumed both barbecue duck and dumpling; the combination of both is natural progression. The fatty pieces of duck are nicely mixed with titbits of bamboo shoot, carrot, mushroom and flavour enhancer 621 (the misunderstood villain of Chinese cuisine).
If DIYD aren't your chomp, then plenty of $1 treats await in the bain marie. Just try and stop at one pork pancake …
7. Billy Kwong
Shop 3/355 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Steamed vegetable dumplings with Warrigal greens and fresh black fungus, four for $19.50
If you're yet to experience Kylie Kwong's menu of native grub(s) and Chinese classics, then edify yourself immediately. Kwong has been folding Spencer Gulf prawns into wonton wrappers for the past 13 years, and these days you can order them steamed with a brown-rice vinegar dressing or crisp with a cricket garnish (as in an actual insect cricket, not a Rod Marsh miniature from the board game Test Match).
The best thing about the food is how clean it all tastes, thanks to the focus on free-range and organic produce. Steamed vegetarian dumplings of translucent dough and Warrigal greens showcase wild Australian weeds at their best (Warrigal greens are much the same as English spinach but with a deeper, saltier taste).
If you can't make it up to Crown Street to knock elbows among the floral arrangements at Billy Kwong proper, The Hardest Working Woman in Food Business can also be found at Eveleigh Market every Saturday, dishing up pork dumplings with organic tamari and ginger.
8. Emperor's Garden
96-100 Hay Street, Haymarket
Deep-fried prawn dumplings, five for $8
And here's a different definition of Australian-Chinese. Gossamer-thin dumplings of thrice-cooked alpaca, eye of newt and dragon egg are all well and good, but sometimes you just want something deep-fried to dip in sweet and sour sauce. Something more provincial to Gulgong than Guangdong. Something from the Copperart school of Chinese cookery. Or maybe that's just me.
Anyway, these fun gors full of chubby prawn are just that. Yum cha trollies bounce around the room like drunk electrons, and while the cheong fun, duck feet or veal ribs you might find stacked on them are all very acceptable, among the RSL stylings of the room these deep-fried decapods feel right at home.
Also note the customised Everlasting Gobstopper Machine that creates custard-filled emperor buns out front. At four for a dollar, they're a perfect snack for the way home.