'Anyone for European food tonight?'' Sounds absurd? In fact, with more than 1 billion people and a land mass the size of the US, Chinese food has just as much regional variation as that of the European continent. Dumplings might mean delicate dim sum from Hong Kong, fluffy fish-filled beauties from seaside Shandong, or tiny tortellini stuffed with lamb from Muslim western China. But there's no need to grab your passport - take a gastronomic tour of the Middle Kingdom without leaving town, thanks to our guide to Melbourne's regional Chinese restaurants.
Huddled in the mountains beside the Burma border, Yunnan is one of China's most multi-ethnic provinces. Taste Ivan Ma's chicken broth and you'll be wondering if it isn't also home to a lost tribe of Jewish grandmothers. The rich stock is an integral part of Cross-Bridge Noodles, the signature dish at Carlton's Colourful Yunnan. Piping-hot broth arrives with a heaped bowl of fat rice noodles and a platter of tastes for dipping, including delicate leaves of fresh fish and slices of Yunnan ham, cured in-house by Ivan and family. One prominent minority in Yunnan is the Dai, who have ethnic links to Laos and Thailand. Their influence is seen in Colourful Yunnan's barbecued lemongrass fish with its balance of sweet, sour and spicy flavours. For dessert, try the sweet ice porridge with rose sugar, made by infusing sugar with rose petals for several months.
Colourful Yunnan, 680-682 Swanston Street, Carlton, 9943 1055.
Chinese pizza? Find this and other street foods from Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei, at Carnegie's Red Cliff. Owner Steve Xu's signature dish is home-made noodles with sesame sauce, a typical snack gobbled on street corners back home. Springy egg noodles are blanched and mixed with thick sesame paste (like tahini), dark soy, house-made beef stock and more. Team them with a slice of Wuhan pizza: a crisp, wafer-thin dough layer on top of sticky rice studded with diced pork and Chinese mushrooms. When it comes to mains, don't miss warming, rich beef belly and tendon claypot or stir-fried lamb, delightfully crusty with cumin and Sichuan peppercorns.
Red Cliff, 358 Neerim Road, Carnegie, 9568 6555.
The chilly north-eastern corner of China, bordered by North Korea, Russia and Mongolia, has fostered many nomadic groups that went on to conquer much of China. While below the wall imperial Beijing cuisine took on flowery touches, above it the food stayed simple and hearty. At Dumplings & More, the proprietors might not speak much English, but don't let that stop you experiencing this authentic Dongbei diner. A standout dish is the rather prosaically named ''potato, eggplant and chilli'', featuring chunks of fried potato, lightly battered eggplant and long green chilli pepper in a simple, light garlic sauce. Also excellent are chargrilled lamb skewers bristling with crushed cumin. Don't miss Dumplings & More's zingy cold dishes, either, such as crunchy peanuts and celery in a zippy chilli dressing.
Dumplings & More, 96 Hopkins Street, Footscray, 9689 2165.
You might hear a Cantonese barbecue joint before you see it - just listen for the rhythmic thwack of cleaver on weathered chopping block. Whether you hear Roast Duck Inn on approach or not, the glistening roast ducks and sides of crisp pork decorating the window will draw you in. Slide into a chair and you'll be presented with a bowl of complimentary soup, a restorative broth made from duck bones and Chinese herbs. The ducks are roasted continuously throughout the day, ensuring a constant supply of warm, juicy meat. A simple plate of roast duck comes with rice dressed with a special sauce of soy, ginger and spring onion, plus a helping of gently wilted Asian greens. Hailing from Hong Kong and southern China, Cantonese food lets the ingredients do the talking. At Roast Duck Inn, they say quality loud and clear.
Roast Duck Inn, 29-31 Carrington Road, Box Hill, 9897 3788.
With walls lined with a Turkish-style carpet and scenes that look more Ottoman Empire than Forbidden City, Dolan Uyghur showcases far-western China's cultural connections to central Asia. Proprietor Elham Aziz was a dentist in Xinjiang before migrating to Australia and trading cavities for kebabs. The food of the Muslim Uyghur people at China's western fringe turns assumptions about Chinese food on their heads. Fancy yourself part of a Silk Road caravan as you tuck into imposing skewers threaded with chunks of lamb, as well as polo, a rice pilaf studded with carrot. The crowd fave is yangyu tohu kormisi, hunks of chicken heady with star anise on thick handmade noodles, scattered with a tumble of red and green capsicum. To drink, there's sweet and tangy home-made yoghurt or tea in tall, graceful teapots.
Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven, 166 Little Lonsdale Street, city, 9041 8802 and 10 Queens Avenue, Springvale, 9546 0698.
The Sichuan peppercorn has such a peculiar mouth-numbing effect that rural Chinese dentists purportedly use it as an anaesthetic. At Sichuan House, Peter Hu imports only the best sun-dried specimens from China, and uses them judiciously in his classic Sichuan dishes. A traditional Sichuan banquet will start with a selection of cold dishes to be eaten with beer, like silky poached chicken in chilli and Sichuan pepper. Next, try Sichuan House's cumin spare ribs, which have a cult following. Pork ribs are braised in seasoned broth before being deep-fried and dusted with cumin and Sichuan pepper, each crisp parcel giving way to reveal meltingly tender meat inside. Other classics include ma po tofu, made with pork mince, firm tofu and top-quality broad bean paste. Keep an eye out for Sichuan House's original branch that will be reopening soon in Corrs Lane in the city.
Sichuan House Seafood, 395-397 Victoria Street, Abbotsford, 9913 6235.
Could dumplings be Melbourne's official food? At any rate, they're an obsession the city shares with cosmopolitan Shanghai, the birthplace of xiao long bao. Ease one of these saggy-bottomed dumplings onto a Chinese soup spoon and pierce gently for a little lunchtime magic: a dumpling filled with meat and a generous spurt of hot soup. Classic fried dumplings with burnished bottoms are popular, too, or try sheng jian bao, xiao long bao's stouter cousins, ''fried mini buns'' like big moneybags with crusty bottoms. Other typical Shanghainese dishes at the Master include fried rice cake, pleasantly chewy rice flour discs tossed with spinach and mushroom, and sweet-and-sour pork ribs.
Shanghai Master Dumpling, 171-173 King Street, city, 9077 0919, and Shanghai Street Dumpling, 342 Little Bourke Street and 64 La Trobe Street, city.
Meiyan Wang is winning hearts by the hundreds at ShanDong MaMa, her riotously popular dumpling den in a Chinatown arcade. Shandong is, in essence, a peninsula protruding from China's east coast; accordingly, seafood plays an important role in its cuisine. Meiyan's signature dish is boiled mackerel dumplings, which has fresh mackerel whipped to an almost fluffy texture before being tucked into slender home-made skins. Some authentic fare can be heavy going, though, such as home-made smoked fish, served cold with a gelatinous sauce. Pick a winner instead with the shredded cabbage salad, a fresh, sweet and tangy treat. Meiyan also offers ''Melbourne dumplings''. These crisp parcels feature a tasty blend of seafood and chicken mince spiked with lemon zest, parsley and olive oil.
ShanDong MaMa, Shop 7, Mid City Arcade, 200 Bourke Street, city, 9650 3818.