Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dumprings! Dumprings!!

A version of the following feature was published on UK arts and culture portal, The Collective Review.

One of the first things I missed when I moved to London was somewhere to get a quick, cheap, fresh dumpling fix. The whole Shanghai dumpling craze in Melbourne has been raging out of control for YEARS: once upon a time a standard Friday night in Shanghai Noodle would involve groups of hipsters sharing one plate of steamed chicken and prawn dumplings while polishing off a dozen long necks of Coopers Sparkling; these days you’re just as likely to wait in line for a table behind packs of inebriated suits (aaahhhh, god bless gentrification…) who’ll inhale a platter apiece in a pit stop during after work drinks.

Anyone who has a clue (and a car…) knows to forget Melbourne’s Chinatown and get to Box Hill in the ‘burbs. David and Camy’s in Station Street (they used to have a city restaurant off Little Bourke St) serves shanghai dumplings (pork, cabbage and herbs in a crescent-shaped wrapper), shanghai noodles (thick, wormy, homemade noodles in a dark sticky soy sauce with shredded pork and cabbage), and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce BIGGER, BETTER and CHEAPER than anywhere in Zone 1.

…Which is all very well when you have a car and live in Melbourne, but things are a whole lot more depressing when you’re new to London, unemployed, reliant on the £6.30 in your wallet for the next two days, largely friendless, 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 say I now have options in a few different neighbourhoods…

1. Jen Café, 4-8 Newport St, London WC2H 7JP
Sorry, but this ‘China town’ 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. They’re Beijing style, apparently. Handmade on the workbench in the window, in fact. £4 a plate, maybe? Cheap, steamed, fried, in chilli oil, whatevs. For Melbournian ex-pats hankering for the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” hospitality championed by the nasty man with the glasses and the even meaner old woman (his mother-in-law, perhaps?) who run Shanghai Dumpling, Jen Café boasts a similar level of service. 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 infront 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 infront of us. The dumplings certainly fill a hole, though.
If you’re still peckish after you’ve (most likely) been sent packing after 19 minutes inside, 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 ever tasted (disclaimer: I only really started eating them in the past couple of years, so I can’t compare them to much). The note I wrote in my phone reads “Chinese chive, pork, chicken, vegie buns”. I think they come in four varieties. They’re like £1 each, I think.

2. 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 or chicken, with celery, cabbage and spices (or just plain vegie). Same hand-pressed crescent shape, but with a distinctly heavier (wheatier?) 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
I’d heard the rumours about Camberwell’s impressive variety of cheap and cheerful non-Western eateries (compared to neighbouring Stockwell and Brixton), and have recently become a little O-to-the-BSESSED with the rather unusual Chinaman blogger who is Southside proud, with his predilection for cheap, good fare with a south-east Asian inflection. As if I didn’t need any more motivation to check out Silk Road’s renowned dumplings, I discover my man J-Ray jumped on its bandwagon MONTHS ago, touting the specialities of its Xinjiang cuisine (that’s the Chinese province bordering – amongst others – Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and home to some serious ethnic tensions).

Given Xinjiang borders pretty much all the “…ajistan” countries – hello, Borat – I arrived there excited to taste how Central Asian flavours (mutton and spices?) would fuse with noodles and dumplings. Vegan BF went with the mixed vegetables and noodles (£6), I got the lamb and onion dumplings (10 FOR £2.50... David and Camy, you're dead to me now) and we shared pak choi with garlic (£5). Let me tell you something for nothing: Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce has stiff competition in the form of pak choi with garlic. Same consistency sauce with liberal slices of fresh chilli, but a revelation.

The dumplings seemed a cross between the standard steamed Shanghai variety and the Tibetan momos – the filling was deffo a bit more rustic (it defintiely tasted like lamb and onion, FYI), ditto the doughier wrapping. Not sure how they’d go once stone cold – clearly they didn’t have time to cool, as I hovered up all 10 with Chinese vinegar and chilli oil at the speed of light. The BF’s noodles were interesting – I’d like to try Silk Road’s noodles with lamb, or even something offaly. The tomato, cabbage, green chilli and garlic stirfry looked, at first, like an Italian sauce gone wrong (the homemade and obviously hand-stretched noodles could pass for tagliatelle at a glance). But when you bite into the totally-redefining-al-dente noodles, you realise how totally crappy all the noodles you’ve ever had were, compared to these. I’d like to confirm if the noodle dough is the same as the dumpling dough. I think it might be.

We clearly didn’t give the menu enough of a shake up to feel fully versed on the culinary pecularities of northwest China, but I’ll be certainly returning for a plate of the lamb and onion, beef and onion, or egg and shrimp and something else dumplings VERY SOON. It would appear the large platter of chicken is the customary dish - it's a 'book 24 hours in advance' number. Oh – Tsingtao beers were £2, and our bill came to under £20 and we were so full we nearly died on the walk home to Stockwell. The end.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh yes, Melbourne... I grew up there for 38 years before migrating to the Land Of The Long White Cloud. I'm a dumpling freak, could snort 'em off a plate meself too. I did my first trip back over there recently after 12 years away and was on the hunt for the delicioust dumpling in town. I did some homework online prior to my departure and visited a few eateries. I wish I knew then about Dave and Camy's though as that sounds like the place to go!