A beginner's guide to dumplings

A guide to one of China’s greatest culinary gifts to the world

Pot stickers

锅贴 (Guō tiē)

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A semi-fried dumping, guo tie are dumplings that have been pan-fried in shallow oil, sometimes in addition to a secondary cooking process.

A dash of water is added and the resultant steam cooks the fillings and sets the wrapping. As the water cooks off, a delicate lattice of browned flour and starch forms on the bottoms, connecting the cooked dumplings. This style is always served top-down to highlight the lace pattern and golden-brown bottoms.

Get them Country Kitchen. Rustic regional cuisine done expertly.

Tāng Yuán

汤圆

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The lone sweetie on our list, tang yuan is technically a dumpling but has an appearance, texture and presentation that makes it stand out in the crowd of wrapped, steamed, fried and boiled. Traditionally served as a dessert course for banquets during Lantern Festival, the tang yuan found in most shops famously hails from Ningbo.

Fine rice flour is mixed with oil and lard into smooth dough before wrapping up balls of peanut, sesame or other sweetened fillings. The dumplings are boiled and then served in reserved broth. The water takes on a thick sheen from the glutinous rice, but tang yuan tends not to be as sweet as its syrupy appearance suggests.

Get them Din Tai Fung. The mega chain serves up more than just the perfect xiao long bao; don’t miss these sweet, chewy treats stuffed with creamy sesame paste or peanut.

Siu mai

烧卖 (Shāo mài)

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Shao mai is another iconic member of the dim sum canon. These babies are open at the top and customarily adorned with a tiny crown of shrimp or crab roe, filled with pork.

Regional claims to the shao mai extol different versions of this chimney-style dumpling. Whether it’s the floral-inspired Inner Mongolian version that shuns the seafood in place of mutton, or the Macanese that ditches pork for chewy fishcake and a drizzling of thickened soy and fish sauce, they all share the same basic anatomy and preparation technique: the filling is wrapped in a thin yellow sheet and steamed standing straight up.

Get them Jing Yaa Tang. Chef Li Dong flaunts his mastery of nearly all of China’s major cuisines – particularly dim sum.

Boiled dumplings

水饺 (Jiǎo zi)

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The shui jiao is the grand dame of dumplings the world over. If you’ve spent any time wrapping dumplings with your Chinese (adoptive or otherwise) grandmother, odds are they were the pinched, boiled variety. Wrapped with a skin made from fine wheat flour and boiled until tender, these dumplings pair best with chilli oil and a bowl of strong, northern black-rice vinegar.

Resembling small powdered ears, the name for all dumplings in Mandarin, jiaozi (from jiao’er, or ‘delicate ear’), is thanks to this humble boiled version’s likeness to a dainty cupped ear. When it comes to stuffing, the world is your oyster (or maybe oysters are in your stuffing, no judgment). The most common fillings are pork and leek, lamb and scallion, or cabbage and egg. But we’ve been known to go for the gongbao jiding (kung pao chicken) dumplings at Baoyuan Jiaoziwu from time to time.

Get them Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu. The colourful, hand-wrapped shui jiao always impress.

Prawn dumplings

虾饺 (Xiā jiǎo)

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Commonly know to foreigners by its Cantonese name, hargow, the rice-wrapped shrimp dumpling, or xia jiao, is a staple of the southern Chinese dim sum. It’s a delicate, pleated style of dumpling; when the proper thickness of the tapioca flour wrapper and consistency of the chopped shrimp filling are in perfect balance it’s a thing of beauty indeed. Unlike the thick-skinned and oil-soaked northern dumplings, xia jiao are all about mild flavours and fresh ingredients.

The filling can be bulked up with finely diced bamboo shoots to contrast the smooth texture of the shrimp, but don’t expect much else in terms of fillings. These dumplings are in a class of their own. If you can see the pink and white brocade of chopped shrimp beneath the wrapper it’s a good sign, but the real test is how well the wrapping holds up to a chopstick and if it can keep it together for more than one bite.

Get them Cai Yi Xuan. The Four Season’s restaurant is the first and last word when it comes to the very best dim sum in the capital (but it don’t come cheap).

Dālian huoshāo

褡裢火烧

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These long, pan-fried ingots were invented in Beijing. The story goes that a street vendor in the northeast of the city originally wrapped up these dumplings to be sold alongside his popular hot and sour soup. The name comes from the rolled-cloth rucksack marketgoers used to ferry goods (but don’t worry, these taste a measure better than an old rucksack).

Huo shao pastry is more commonly associated with donkey meat ‘burgers’ from the northern city of Hejian, but these are most certainly dumplings. Tightly rolled and sealed on both ends, the huo shao are fried on both sides in shallow oil on an iron plate. Fillings span the gamut but we recommend sticking with the classic pork and leek.

Get them Dalian Huoshao. A hole-in-the wall south of Beixinqiao serving steaming dumplings, fresh from the oil, alongside unlimited free rice porridge.

Soup dumplings

小笼包 (Xiǎo lónɡ bāo)

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This iconic Shanghainese delicacy just might be one of our favourite foods. Bundles of translucent wrapping struggling to hold back a torrent of pork, melted fat and salty crab soup – what’s not to love? Connoisseurs of dim sum might consider the xia jiao the test of a dumpling house’s worth, but we nominate the xiao long bao as the better metric.

The ingredients are simple but the construction demands a practised hand. A mixture of minced pork, crabmeat or roe and gelatinous fat is wrapped within a dangerously thin wrapping. The dumplings are steamed, which liquefies the fat to form a reservoir of tongue-scorching broth suspending a neat meaty centre. Using chopsticks and a spoon to support the delicate pouch, take a small bite and sample the savoury elixir. Be careful, though: the soup in these guys can be dangerously hot. They don’t call them ‘little dragon buns’ for nothing.

Get them Din Tai Fung. The Taiwanese dumpling house has a bevy of locations and the xiao long bao are some of the best in the world.

Pan-fried buns

生煎包 (Shēng jiān bāo)

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A hybrid bun-dumpling, sheng jian bao is a dumpling in spite of having the character for ‘bun’ in its name. Tiny steamed puffs of leaved dough – concealing a mixture of fatty pork, garlic and scallion – are pan-fried in shallow oil until the bottoms hold a glorious golden crunch.

These Shanghai early morning staples are a close relative of the xiao long bao, but instead of deploying an ocean of rich, savoury pork fat soup directly into your already-tortured maw, the soft outer layer soaks up the molten juices and helps you preserve a few tastes buds. Like the soup dumplings, a cheeky nibble and a few blows into its fiery confines go a long way.

Get them Shanghai Min. A swanky chain of mall-based restaurants.

Glutinous rice dumplings

粽子 (Zòng zi)

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This sort-of-dumpling is traditionally eaten as part of Dragon Boat Festival but also served throughout the year as a popular street snack. Legend has it a devoted civil servant, who was driven to suicide by his devotion to the state, drowned himself in a river. His attendants, not wanting fish to deface his corpse, threw bundles of rice steamed in bamboo leaves into the river.

Apparently the fish were into them as people still wrap, eat and exchange zong zi. The filling consists of thickened rice around roasted pork, mixed nuts or other sweetened fillings.

Get them Little Jiangnan Shanghai Soup Dumplings (小江南汤包私房). A neighbourhood shop in Liangmaqiao.

Wonton

馄饨 (Hún tun)

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The wettest member of the team, the wonton is nearly always served in soup. Shanghai features its own unique style of hun tun that is remarkably similar to the Italian tortellini, if a tortellini took steroids and tripled in size.

More commonly, hun tuns consist of a thin wheat wrapping pinched around a small ball of minced pork, lamb, shrimp or scallop. Unlike oil- or wok-bound dumplings, hun tun keep their long tails, which often make them appear much larger than they are, leading to the odd soup stain on your trousers. Boiled then ladled into fresh soup, hun tun are often eaten for breakfast thanks to their simple preparation and short cook time.

Get them Sha’xian Xiao Chi (沙县小吃). This ubiquitous chain serves up wontons, bamboo racks of steamed and fried dumplings and side dishes in the simplest fashion. Open late and dangerously cheap, Sha’xian’s dumplings don’t raise the bar but they can always be counted on.

Pan-fried dumplings

煎饺 (Jiān jiǎo)

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Pan-fried dumplings are a complex and diverse class of dumplings prized for their artful preparation and visual appeal. Unlike their pot sticker cousins, jian jiao can be steamed, boiled or otherwise cooked before being gathered in a metal pan in shallow oil.

A thin unleavened wheat wrapper encases fillings. The raw dumplings are individually arranged on a hot iron plate in a shallow pool of oil and fried without moving until the bottoms are browned and crispy. Jian jiao make appearances on street stall counters and in the home as fried leftovers served as breakfast.

The definition of this kind of dumpling isn’t precise, so ‘jian jiao’ is a handy cover-all term when in search of some golden-brown, oily goodness.

Get them Xian Lao Man (馅老满). A cheap Beijing chain specialising in shui jiao, jian jiao and more.

Deep-fried dumplings

炸饺 (Zhá jiǎo)

Fried-Dumplings

Thanks to the long cooking time and large amount of oil required, whole dumplings are not often deep-fried on the streets of Beijing. The zha jiao, or deep-fried dumpling, is more often found in speciality dumpling houses or on the dim sum cart.

A popular southern-style of zha jiao uses taro starch flour and a sweet filling of Chinese yam and roast pork, which is formed into a small ball. A word of warning: the thick glutinous wrappings insulate heat well – fried zha jiao have a reputation for scalding unsuspecting diners.

Get them Lei Garden. Beijing’s high temple to the god of Cantonese delicacies, Lei Garden has long reigned supreme as the luxe destination for subtle southern classics.


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