Can (wo)man live on dumplings alone?
The answer in China: Yes!
Steamed, fried or boiled; round, crescent, or amorphous; meat or veg; thin-skinned or thick, dumplings in China form a universe all their own.
By no means are we experts in Chinese dumplings. That's a life's work. But we can offer a brief primer and the best of our dumpling experiences in China.
A Brief Chinese Dumpling Glossary
- Jiaozi – crescent-shaped dumplings generally folded from circles of thinly-rolled dough; served boiled or steamed.
- Guo Tie – pot stickers, or fried jiaozi.
- Bāozi – steamed buns. For contrast and flavor, meat bāozi occasionally feature a little nutmeg or star anise (if you notice something sweet).
- Xiaolongbao – smooth, translucent steamed buns made from unraised flour. Filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables and often a splash of broth.
- Shaomai – unsealed dumplings, meaning that the filling shows through the top. Stuffed with just about anything, including meat, vegetables or flavored sticky rice.
- Dim Sum – Cantonese-style (Guangdong Province) dumplings, often steamed and served as snacks or with tea.
Top 10 Chinese Dumpling Experiences (in chronological order)
1. Manti – Kashgar, Xinjiang
Similar to Central Asian manti. The seasonal variety served in Kashgar during our autumn visit featured sweet, diced pumpkin. Delicious when served with thick plain yogurt and roasted red pepper sesame oil.
2. Train Bāozi – Urumqi to Lanzhou
Tiring of noodle soup buckets on our 24-hour train ride from Urumqi to Lanzhou, Dan jumped off at one of the stations, rolled the dice on a bag of freshly steamed bāozi from a platform vendor, and scored. Filled with meat, carrots, onions and a tad of nutmeg, they provided a much-needed change for our train-weary tastebuds. And they went perfectly with a cold beer.
3. Tibetan Momos – Xiahe, Gansu
We were introduced to Tibetan dumplings (momos) at Gesar Restaurant near Labrang Monastery. The cabbage and carrot-stuffed variety delivered comfort and warmth on a cold night when paired with a zippy roasted red pepper sauce. Honorable Mention: A dessert of freshly made apple momos.
4. Midnight Dim Sum – Xi’an
Xin Wang’s Cantonese Dim Sum in downtown Xi’an serves dim sum from 9:30 PM – 2:00 AM. Is it worth the wait? Absolutely. The dim sum stuffed with shrimp and greens were exceptional. Scallops weren't bad either. You can find Xin Wang’s Cantonese Dim Sum on Dong Dajie on the right-hand side as you walk from the Bell Tower (second floor in a huge shopping center).
5. Breakfast Dumplings – Pingyao
You might be asking, “Dumplings for breakfast?” Indeed. And more than once. Harmony Guest House (No.165 Nan Da Jie Street, Pingyao) serves up uniquely square-shaped pan-fried vegetarian bāozi all day long. Perfect with a little dip of soy sauce.
6. 5-Star and Local Dumplings – Beijing
The Beijing outpost of the world-famous Taiwanese Din Tai Fung restaurant chain served up our first dose of dumplings in the big city. Although decent, they were expensive by any measure. And here’s the thing: an unpretentious local cafe on a side street from Guanghua Lu (around the corner from Guomao metro station in the Chaoyang business district) served simple, tasty, dressed-down dumplings that were twice as good and 1/10 the price. We enjoy good food and we love good value. Lesson: food before fancy.
7. Qingdao Jiaozi
Everywhere we turned in Qingdao, we ran into dumpling restaurants. Da Yu’s menu featured some unintended humor, but offered a plate of 20 hand-made shrimp, pork and greens jiaozi for $1.70. Another restaurant on Zhongyuan Meishi offered a dozen different varieties for about the same price. A duo of women in the back cranked out trays of beautifully formed jiaozi in record time.
8. Chengdu Snack Food
Large transparent shaomai are stuffed with perfectly herbed pork and served with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce. Our favorite: Longchaoshou Canting on the corner of Chunxi Lu and Shandong Dajie in downtown Chengdu’s shopping district. The Zhong dumplings were also very tasty. Though not quite as good, the café at the Chendgu People's Park features similar Chengdu-style snacks and dumplings.
9. Street Dumplings – Kunming, Yunnan
Trays of steamed jiaozi and bāozi served with soy, hot pepper, vinegar and fresh cilantro dipping sauces form the cornerstone of a inexpensive, street-side restaurant on DaGuan Lu. Try also the freshly rolled rice noodles stuffed with pork floss (threads of pork).
10. Dumpling Salvation – Kaili, Guizhou
If you take the overnight train from Kunming to Kaili (Guizhou Province), hop the downtown bus when you arrive and alight in the midst of a line of stir fry and soup joints on Wenhua Beilu. Look for the stack of bamboo steamers to find great jiaozi and guo tie. The mother and daughter dumpling team – and their customers – laughed as we scarfed down two trays of steamed jiaozi served with a dipping sauce of roasted crushed chilies, spring onions, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, Sichuan pepper and a tad of sugar. We returned daily during our stay in Kaili.