I admit it. I love a good dumpling. I think it’s one of the major indicators of a civilized society. The minute anyone wants to take the time to wrap a little bit of something in pastry we have the indicators of higher thinking and regard for one’s compatriots. The highest form of dumpling culture is of course Cantonese yum cha. I’ve visited restaurants in Hong Kong where you can get up to five floors that fill from the bottom up starting from mid morning, with every shape and size of mysterious pillows and other delights that often defy definition. On one such occasion the accommodating hostess directed a proud cart to our table announcing in her best English that these were goldfish – highly prized and very special. Smiling, I reverently accepted the kind offer of a steaming basket, upon which my compatriot whispered with wide eyes “I’m not eating goldfish!!!” These prawn and pork wonders were shaped and painted to resemble goldfish, I assured her. And if not, we’ll never know.
For many years I’ve enjoyed the same experience in Sydney. My favourites are East Ocean in Dixon Street, the Regal in Sussex Street and sometimes Silver Spring or Kam Fook. But sometimes you might not feel like the full experience. Your quiet Sunday morning assaulted by trolley pushers operating like Benzedrine-fuelled flight attendants jousting down the aisles between the tables with steaming weapons, proffering bamboo baskets whose names urgently uttered sound like some grave Chinese insult rather than a tasty little morsel. Although this is somewhat part of the whole idea of yum cha, there are other alternatives. The home yum cha. But you need to know what to get and where to get it, then how to cook it.
I’ve often been disappointed with take-away Chinese meals. Convenient, yes, but somehow the honey prawns lose some of their crispness. Anything but the simplest of stir fries loses its architectural grandeur and careful garnishing and looks kind of unappetizing squished into a flat clear plastic container. But with yum cha you can cook on the premises with similar building blocks to those used in the big restaurants. You can go all out and start from scratch, as I have done many times. Make the Jao Tze pastry and whip up a steaming array of pot stickers with crisply crusted bases and astringent vinegar dressing. Fold your wanton skins into feather light cloud swallows, pungent with shitake mushrooms and tasty sweet pork. Roll your mini spring rolls who when fried reveal the crisp bean sprouts and carrots within so lovingly micro-julienned by hand. But there goes your Saturday and you fall into bed with an aching back, flour caked under your fingernails and strained eyesight from looking too hard at miniscule pieces of food.
So where’s the happy medium? The pre-prepared frozen dumpling, ready for whatever method of cooking serves its shape and texture perfectly. Now, before you stop reading right there, I’m not talking your jumbo sized marathon dim sim or your hoi mai pre-cooked heat-in-the-oven jobs. A friend of mine once told me he was convinced that with the number of restaurants serving yum cha, plus the array and variety of items, multiplied by the average per capita consumption in the normal hour or so it takes to eat, there must be some great cavern underneath Haymarket with rows of illiterate Chinese refugees tirelessly folding and chopping and rolling vast quantities of dim sum until their arthritis and failing eyesight had them carted off to make way for the next process worker. Sort of like a Dante-esque yum cha circle of hell. Sounded paranoid at the time but if you think about it, someone’s making the dumplings.
Lucky for us that cavern doesn’t exist under Haymarket (or the district may have collapsed into the abyss years ago) but there are a number of good quality local dumpling manufacturers whose efforts eventually make their pilgrimage to the dim sum mecca of Chinatown and are for sale in their supermarkets. Head to the Tai Kee IGA supermarket in Market City, the Burlington Centre in Thomas Street, or the newly opened Chinese grocery and bakery in World Square (cnr George and Goulburn Streets) and you’ll find a good choice to put together your own yum cha. The defining feature of good pre-prepared dim sum is that they should taste of the things claimed to be contained within, rather than some gluey sawdust paste. Texture is important, as is the taste of the seasonings like garlic, ginger and spring onions. They all have to be cooked from frozen. Don’t thaw beforehand. Here are my recommendations.
Jin Fung Goy Chinese Dim Sum (made in Wetherill Park). You’ll recognize the brand by the leaf motif on the front of the packet. They have a few different varieties but I like the Peking chives pork dumplings for flavour. These are very versatile. They can be simply boiled, steamed or the fry/steam combination used for pot stickers (see below). $4.90 per 700g packet (about 2 ½ dozen small dumplings). Other flavours include pork and cabbage and pork and spinach.
Ho’s Kitchen Dim Sim Food Company, Pitt Street, Sydney, pork dumpling (War Tip). I find these indistinguishable from the pot stickers served at the East Ocean. They are large and juicy and taste of clean fresh ginger. The ideal way to cook these is on a medium heat, warm about a tablespoon of peanut oil in a non stick pan that has a tight fitting lid. Place the flat bottom of each frozen dumpling into the oil and leave for a few minutes until the base starts to brown a little. Then put in a small amount of water or stock (the actual quantity will depend on the size of the pan) to cover the base and up to ¼ cm up the side of the dumpling. Cover and turn the heat down to low. The liquid will evaporate and the tops of the dumplings will steam while the inside cooks through. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time I partially uncover the pan to let the liquid completely evaporate leaving just the oil film in the pan. The bases of the dumplings then crisp up to a golden brown leaving the tops pale and steamy. Serve on a plate with the dumplings sitting on their sides showing off their crunchy bottoms. These are best served with Chinese black or Chin Kiang vinegar, and chilli paste if desired. $5.40 per packet of 6 large dumplings. Other flavours for steaming include combination duck dumplings ($5.25 for 6 – see gow gee instructions below).
Lai Shing Dim Sim Shop, Haymarket, prawn gow gee. These need to be steamed and I find the delicate rice flour wrapping can be a bit messy and sticky if you over-steam them. These are best in individual bamboo steamers so you don’t have to take them out of a large steamer to serve. Make sure you always line the base of your steamer with baking paper that has been pierced with a few holes to let the steam through, or the bases may tear when removed from the steamer losing all the luscious juices and you’ll be picking bits of pastry of the bamboo rungs for days ($7.50 for a pack of 12). Also good for steaming are prawn and pork dim sum (sui mai) $6.30 per pack of 12. For frying, Mini Spring Rolls $6.30 per pack of 12.
Traditional accompaniments include fresh hot chilli sliced into soy sauce; vinegar; a sweet and sour dipping sauce for the fried items, and my own concoction which packs a punch. Dumpling dip: in a bowl combine 2 finely chopped chillies, ½ cup light soy, ¼ cup homemade tomato ketchup, 1 tbsp Worcester sauce, 1 tbsp Maggi sauce, 1 tsp of wasabi and a few dashes of Tabasco.
Complement these selections with a plate of Chinese BBQ duck, chopped and served with the plum sauce that comes with it (topped with roasted peanuts for an authentic presentation) and a plate of warm sliced BBQ pork. Unlike the vast tracts of linen tables in Chinatown restaurants, you can actually sit in the sun and enjoy your own yum cha.