I want to tell you about an unassuming, homey dumpling eatery located in an arcade off Chinatown. Among the abundance of dumpling houses in this area, ShanDong Mama has several points of difference which elevate it above its competition.
I’ve been on the hunt for a really good dumpling since I moved to Melbourne 18 months ago. It’s not that places that serve them are hard to come by (they’re everywhere!) See, the main problem with Melbourne’s “dumpling scene” is that it’s still dominated by a few big old powerhouses. These places – many of which are all named, for some inexplicable reason “Shanghai” something-or-rather – serve dumplings that mostly fall into the Northern Chinese variety.
The upside of these dominating establishments – which are crazy popular with all demographics and packed full to bursting every night – is that they have ensured the average young Melbournian has at least a basic experience of Asian dumpling consumption. Yes, this adopted city of mine has its own unique dumpling “culture” – and I’m grateful, even if it’s a bit unbalanced and one-dimensional.
Still, from time to time I get the alarming question “what is a dumpling?” and the rather impossible one “will I like them?”
Well. Originally, “dumpling” referred to lumps of dough the British liked to eat with suet – think gnocchi, without the deliciousness of egg and potato in the mix, but with animal fat. Appetising?
Thankfully, international cuisine has hijacked the word in the last century! Today, the Asian “dumpling” is basically any food encased in a wrapper of any shape or form.
So, will you like them? Unless you have an innate issue with the concept of food wrapped in other food, with the right knowledge, you shouldn’t have to look too far to find a type suited to your tastes.
But I digress. A lot. Can one digress before one has even begun? This isn’t a discourse on Dumpling Education of the masses – that’s what the Dumpling Dictionary I’m building is for.
I couldn’t ignore the light hype that started around ShanDong Mama in the Melbourne food blogosphere earlier this year. The reviews told the story of “Mama” from the ShanDong province of China, an area known for cuisine based around its abundance of fresh seafood. It was all a bit charming, and I decided I had to check it out for myself.
The decor is basic, but the restaurant is neat and modern and it certainly doesn’t exude the same greasy scunginess of many of its rivals.
They’ve also managed to produce the clearest (read: most English-user-friendly) menu of any Chinese dumpling restaurant I’ve seen anywhere which isn’t an overpriced fusion establishment. Each dish isn’t merely listed cryptically as a badly translated Chinese dish name but described in detail with each ingredient mentioned. Vegetarian dishes are clearly marked, the majority of the vego dishes also being vegan. They also have a kind of dorky sense of humour… (evidence below)
In fact, as far as marketing, presentation and image are concerned, this little family business ticks most of those boxes you wouldn’t expect its peers to tick. A bit of sleuthing around Google tells me that Mama’s daughter and godson handle these PR and marketing matters, even cleverly inviting bloggers to sample their food when they first opened.
But what about the dumplings, you ask? Well, the first thing that any dumpling amateur will notice is that their panfried dumplings look somewhat different from other Chinese fried dumplings. They’re long and open-ended and have sort of angular/rectangular-ish bottoms where they join up to the dumpling-next-door. Now, I’ve tried doing a bit of research but I can’t claim to know whether this is a traditional feature of a dumpling from the ShanDong province. It is, however, eye-catching and if not authentic then certainly a neat presentation feature.
Visual quirks aside, the dumplings here are among the tastiest I’ve had so far in Melbourne. The filling is beautifully fresh, and gives the impression of being lovingly hand mixed rather than carelessly mushed up and mass produced. (This YouTube video will prove that impression correct!) You feel like you’re eating “real food” here – homemade and fresh – a rare thing in a inexpensive dumpling house.
Break open a dumpling and you’ll see – each ingredient distinctly identifiable to the naked eye rather than disappearing into processed-ball-of-meat-land; each ingredient easily savour-able by the palate.
Filling combos here are rather refreshing and creative compared to your typical pork-and-cabbage varieties (although they did also have that option on my first visit). The vegan option is based around finely grated fresh zucchini, which is certainly a nice change.
On multiple visits I have tried the “Melbourne Dumpling”, the pork and dill, the beef, the vegan, and of course, Mama’s signature dish – the mackerel dumpling in both its fried and boiled forms.
The zucchini lends a bit of sweetness as well as satisfying bite and subtle crunch to the veg dumpling, which is fast becoming one of my favourite simple vege-based dishes.
Lacking that dodgy “fishy taste” that often comes with seafood in budget restaurants, the mackerel dumplings are quite worthy of the positive reviews and are undeniably fresh and nicely textured. The menu describes how the fish is whipped into a mousse by hand and seasoned with coriander, ginger and chives.
While delicious and a little different, there’s nothing too remarkable about the meat dumplings I sampled. Every dumpling traditionalist would ask how the boiled pork jiazoi went, and I can tell you – above average. This certainly isn’t the iffy, suspiciously pink “pork” filling you’ll find at Camy’s, and definitely superior to the lumpy ball syndrome in Shanghai Village’s pork dumplings, but I’ve had better. I have yet to try the chicken dumplings and the prawn option.
The “Melbourne Dumplings”, a contemporary house recipe, were a little bit of a let down. Boasting such an impressive number of ingredients (four types of seafood, chicken, lemon rind, olive oil, parsley and garlic) that it leaves you wondering if they could possibly all go together, it was a bit anticlimactic in its lack of flavour explosion. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the flavour – it was still a more-than-decent dumpling – but it just lacked the wow-factor I was hoping for. This offering was supposedly inspired by Melbourne’s multicultural food scene, which explains the odd European additions of olive oil, parsley and lemon rind? I feel like this dumpling somehow fell prey to something similar to the Pizza Topping Complexity Syndrome, where eventually, once exceeding an ingredients threshold for optimum tastiness, it all starts to go downhill a little.
Mama’s handmade jiao dough has a good, springy consistency rather than a gooey one. The wrappers used for the panfried dumplings differ from those wrapping the boiled dumplings – which is really as it should be! Too many budget restaurants serve their potstickers (panfried dumplings) with the same gloopy, doughy wrappers as their shui jiao (boiled dumplings), which immediately makes them complete failures as potstickers as they just don’t crisp up to the appropriate texture for being considered a potsticker.
The “right” wrappers allow the panfried dumplings at ShanDong Mama to maintain their unique tunnel-like shape, which, when I now think about it, actually optimises crispy surface area! The browning also releases a very subtle sweetness in the dough – caramelised dumpling, anyone? Additionally, the wrappers used for the different dumpling varieties also differ – for example, the boiled mackerel dumplings are encased by a very thin, delicate skin, its fried version uses a slightly thicker skin, while the boiled pork dumpling uses a medium-thick homemade skin but its panfried counterpart uses a medium skin of what is almost certainly a different type of dough. Dough Science: an exercise in texture balance, flavour pairing and structural integrity.
I’ve been so busy trying Mama’s dumplings that I’ve only had an opportunity to try two of the eatery’s other dishes; however, both were fantastic! The simple shredded cabbage salad packed a massive flavour punch I definitely wasn’t expecting with its sweet and tangy dressing, and some fragrant sesame oil thrown in. The black fungus salad was similarly tasty in a surprising way, and to boot, both dishes were vegan-friendly and only two out of a fair many herbivorous offerings!
In reading other reviews, I’d stay away from the noodles-based mains and stick to dumplings if you’re after a carby fix!
The dumpling hunt isn’t over yet, but I’ve certainly found a favourite among the inner city’s numerous cheap dumpling houses – and I will be returning again… and again.
|Address:||Shop 7, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne 3000|