One of the first things I missed when I moved to London was somewhere to get a quick, cheap, fresh dumpling fix. A night on the tiles in Melbourne’s CBD will often include a plate of Shanghai dumplings at a no-frills café in Chinatown, much like Londoners go for a late-night curry to refuel between pub and club. In fact, I can’t think of another Melbourne tradition that unites the disparate tribes of hipsters, City workers and International students from south-east Asia. Dumplings *are* an integral part of any yum cha dining experience, but what I’m talking about here is making an entire meal (or at least a giant snack…) from a big plate of the steamed parcels containing minced meat, cabbage, onion and fresh herbs, swimming in chilli oil and soy sauce or Chinese vinegar.
In my opinion there’s no greater luxury than stuffing yourself silly on what is widely considered snacky finger food. How to eat them requires an article all of its own; suffice to say stabbing with chopsticks, slurping off a spoon, and splashing juice/sauce all over yourself and the table are all essential parts of the process.
For the dumpling-addicted antipodean, London can be a cruel mistress when you’re new to the city and therefore unemployed, constantly disorientated, reliant on the £6.30 in your wallet for the next two days, and nursing a mid-week hangover that can only be sated by steamed meat in dough, doused in a 1:1 ratio of soy/chilli sauce. It’s taken a while, but I’m pleased to be able to recommend some options in a few different neighbourhoods…
1. Jen Café, 4-8 Newport St, London WC2H 7JP
Sorry, but this ‘China town in Soho’ caper is a total crock – it’s like three streets max and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Chinese people who actually live or hang out there. No matter, just get to Jen Café for the dumplings. Pork or vegetarian, steamed, fried, in chilli oil, the full shebang. £4-something will get you 10 or so dumplings; they’re Beijing style apparently, although they seem pretty identical to all the Shanghai dumplings I’ve sampled. These ones are handmade on the workbench in the window, which imparts an aura of quaint, authentic hospitality which is briskly terminated as soon as you sit down. Arrive in an antsy, stressed mood and you’ll feel like glassing the waiting staff within five minutes.
The last time I was there we were sat in front of a door that stayed ajar whenever anyone entered (it was during winter). The spotlight above us short-circuited whenever someone in the kitchen used the microwave (like, every 30 seconds), and I was shafted with second-hand dumplings rejected by the dude sitting in front of us. The dumplings certainly fill a hole though, but if you’re looking for silver service you’re barking up the wrong tree.
If you’re still peckish after you’ve been sent packing (we were once in and out in 14 minutes, nearing closing time), there’s a seriously sweet food stall out the front of the Asian grocers behind Jen Café (28-29 Newport Court) selling the best pork buns I’ve tasted in a looooong time (£1 each). There are a few different options including chicken or red bean, but go with the pork.
3. Tibetan Momo stall, The Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Visit the Brick Lane UpMarket on a Sunday and, at some point between buying Japanther’s new EP on vinyl at Rough Trade and buying some pre-loved vintage crap from the unofficial garage sale on Brick Lane (hey, you’ve probably helped pay for some kid’s ticket to Bestival), make sure you try the Tibetan momo from the undercover food market.
So ‘momo’ is the Tibetan version of dumplings (who says I don’t do my research…). These ones come in lamb, pork, chicken or vegie, with celery, cabbage and spices. Same hand-pressed crescent shape as the Shanghai/Beijing style, but with a distinctly heavier (breadier?) wrapping. I went with lamb – that’s the animal I most easily imagined wandering around behind sherpas at altitude. To really bring out the rustic character of the momo, season liberally with the complementary chunky chilli tomato sauce with mustard seeds – it’s wrong to call it a salsa, but that’s what it’s like. Eat it like a salsa and it will literally blow your head off. In a good way. Steamed or fried, six for £4, eight for £5.50, served with salad.
2. Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR
Compared to neighbouring Stockwell and Brixton, Camberwell boasts a decent variety of cheap and cheerful non-Western eateries but its grim, souf’ London façade and lack of tube keeps the north-side foodies at bay. Still, the merits of Silk Road’s Xinjiang cuisine have been duly noted by the Guardian’s restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner, which includes lamb and onion, beef and onion, or egg and shrimp [and something else which I’ve forgotten] dumplings.
Now, given that Xinjiang is the north-west Chinese province bordering all the “…ajistan” countries – hello, Borat – I arrived excited to taste how Central Asian flavours (mutton and spices?) would fuse with noodles and dumplings. The lamb and onion dumplings seem a cross between the standard steamed Shanghai variety and the Tibetan momos – the filling is definitely more ‘rustic’ (not to mention fresh and unprocessed), ditto the doughier and heavier wrapping. Not sure how they’d go if they were stone cold – I wouldn’t know, since I hovered up all 10 with Chinese vinegar and chilli oil at the speed of light. When you’re paying £2.50 for 10 (I kid you not… Silk Road is the bomb) you can probably afford to order a fresh dish if they lose their springiness, and while you’re at it, share a side dish of pak choi with garlic (£5). Chinese broccoli and oyster sauce might be the tried and true dumpling accompaniment, but this garlicky version is a revelation – same saucy consistency but with liberal slices of fresh chilli. In fact, Silk Road should almost be disqualified from this dumpling directory as it boasts serene surrounds, kindly and unassuming staff, and a menu that demands moving beyond the ‘appetisers’ page.