As Chinese New Year approaches, dozens of food guides will advise eating dumplings as a sign of prosperity for the coming new lunar year. The more someone eats, the richer they will be, or so it goes. The reasons for this may seem unclear, until realising that pretty much all Chinese traditions were invented by greedy people who wanted an excuse to eat their whole weight in dumplings and didn’t have to concern themselves with the process of making them themselves. And why not? Is there a better, more auspicious way to start a new year than eating dumplings?
Dumplings are perhaps China’s most profound mark on the history of food. First inventing them, turning what would otherwise be a boring dinner into a lavish treat by the simple act of wrapping a filling in dough, and then formalising the rules of the game with dim sum. Other cultures soon cottoned on to the trick, but there is still nowhere else in the world that comes close in terms of variety: from steamed to fried, boiled to souped, crimped, folded, spherical, oblong and moon shaped — every Chinese dumpling is a little ode to the joy of the small, to the joy of one perfect bite.
London has absorbed several waves of Cantonese immigration, as well as more recent arrivals from other Chinese areas, making it well placed to be the dumpling capital of Europe. Here’s where to ring in the new year of the metallic rat and secure the year’s riches.
Ah, the wonton. In the alignment chart of dumplings this is the true neutral, at home in soups or in chilli oil, filled with a Frankenstein meat that resembles pork but has been skilfully engineered to have the sweetness of prawn. There are many places to get decent versions: at Cafe TPT it’s possible to have them drenched in chilli oil as a starter, where their long elephant ear flaps soak it up marvellously. At Reindeer Cafe in Cricklewood, the wonton soup is precise and clear, bobbing with fat prawn-sweet dumplings, but there’s something about the version at Wong Kei that defies explanation. Questionable dumplings, a broth that fizzes with MSG, piping hot, filled with chilli oil and less than £5, it’s the only truly irreplaceable wonton soup in London.
- Cafe TPT | 21 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 6PN
- Reindeer Cafe | Wing Yip Business Centre, 395 Edgware Road, Cricklewood NW2 6LN
- Wong Kei | 41 - 43 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 6PY
Siu Mai/Har Gow 燒賣/蝦餃
Ant and Dec, Morecambe and Wise, a chance to offer a contrarian take no-one asked for and Brendan O’Neill: where there is siu mai, there will always be har gow. These two dumplings exist in tandem with each other, the first true tests of any dim sum parlour. Therefore the recommendations for these go to the best dim sum places in London at every price point: Orient, Joy King Lau, Phoenix Palace and Yi-Ban for expansive venues on the cheap — the latter’s views of London City Airport are particularly stunning — Shikumen and Royal China at the mid-range; and Michelin-starred A. Wong at the high end, where the siu mai come with pork crackling (yes) and the har gow come with a rice vinegar ... Cloud?
- Orient | 15 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 6PH
- Joy King Lau | 3 Leicester Street, WC2H 7BL
- Phoenix Palace | 5 Glentworth Street, Marylebone NW1 5PG
- Yi-Ban | 1010 Dockside Road, E16 2QT
- Shikumen | Various locations: Shepherd’s Bush; Aldgate; Finchley Road
- Royal China Club | 40 - 42 Baker Street, Marylebone W1U 7AJ
- A. Wong | 70 Wilton Road, Pimlico SW1V 1DE
Shui Jiao (Siu Gow) 水餃
Shui jiao, water dumplings, can come with all sorts of fillings, but the specimens at Hung’s are someone’s answer to the very pressing question: “What if wontons, but more prawn?” Here they arrive looking like Dominic Cummings’ big brain bulging out of its wrinkled skin, filled with prawns, prawns and more prawns. They’re so good it’s worth foregoing noodles in a desperate attempt to get more dumplings.
- Hung’s | 27 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 6PR
Cheung Fun 腸粉
Is cheung fun a dumpling? Here’s its possible to justify its inclusion using a structure neutral policy which states that dumplings in Euclidian space do not necessarily have to be totally closed carb surfaces encasing a filling, and may in fact be semi enclosed. This guide takes a dim view on non-carb based wrappers and non-Euclidian dumplings.
Therefore, cheung fun is indeed a dumpling and some of the best are available at Orient in Chinatown — one of the few places that doesn’t get its dim sum in from the same wholesaler and instead makes them from scratch. The king prawn cheung fun here are paragons of the genre.
- Orient | 15 Wardour Street, Soho W1D 6PH
The chameleon of the dumpling world, jiaozi have different sub-genres depending on whether they have been boiled, steamed, fried or are in soup. However the standard usage of jiaozi usually refers to the steamed kind, which are best at the triangular, green-fronted specialist Jen Cafe. They come chubby and crimped, filled with pork mince and chive. A spartan dumpling to enjoy while watching other diners come in and order the instant noodles by mistake.
Having left Jen Cafe, turn around, and go back in to order the same again but this time fried, bronzed on one side and so transformed into jianjiao. The best extra £1 it’s possible to spend in London.
- Jen Cafe | 4 - 8 Newport Place, WC2H 7JP
Xiao Long Bao 小龙包
Xiao long bao emit an incredible amount of chaotic energy, attracting the worst kind of dumpling nerds who want skins the translucency of an amniotic sac and have strong opinions on how and whether to pierce the skin. Let people burn their mouths if they want to.
For years and years everyone was told there aren’t any great XLB in London, that Din Tai Fung need to come over. And then ... Din Tai Fung announced two restaurants and opened one restaurant, there were queues for a bit, and everyone went home, having moved on to whatever the new thing is. XLB may be the tonkotsu of dumplings but they can still be glorious in the right hands, so it’s unfortunate that those nerds are right and almost no one does them well. Din Tai Fung is still the best bet to avoid the saddest sight in all dining: an arid, desiccated xiao long bao.
- Din Tai Fung | 5 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden WC2E 8PT
Guan Tang Bao 灌汤包
The bigger, less interesting brother to the xiao long bao, the GTB takes the soup dumpling idea and crucially misses out the joyous mouth explosion of soup, instead opting for a gentle sucking approach by dint of a straw. A mutation exists at the roll out of BaoziInn where they unappealingly float in their own soup, but the dumpling completist can find more traditional versions at Beijing Dumplings in Chinatown or at Red Farm, where they are on the menu as “soup dumplings.”
- BaoziInn | 34 - 36 Southwark Street, London Bridge SE1 1TU
- Beijing Dumplings | 23 Lisle Street, Chinatown WC2H 7BA
- Red Farm | 9 Russell Street, Covent Garden WC2B 5HZ
Sheng Jian Bao 生煎包
The king of all dumplings, sheng jian bao are Shanghai’s greatest gift to the world, even more so than the xiao long bao which they surpass by virtue of being fried. Before Dumpling Shack in Spitalfields opened there was nowhere to get them, and since they opened there is still nowhere else that holds a candle. However, while not a restaurant, sheng jian bao can be picked up from Lillian of Shanghai Supper Club on certain days and times if ordered with her in advance.
- Dumpling Shack | Old Spitalfields Market, Brushfield Street, Spitalfields E1 6BG
- Shanghai Supper Club | Marylebone, W1H 2ET — sign up to emails for more information.
Crispy Cheese Beef Rolls (Chinese name unknown)
Crispy. Cheese. Beef. Rolls.
There are flames next to the description of the crispy cheese beef rolls on the menu at Tea Garden in Surrey Quays. This normally signifies a spicy dish, but it’s actually because the restaurant knows it’s fire. Imagine the mind that came up with such an evil dish. Imagine Guy Fieri coming in, eyes bulging and cheese and beef dripping down his face, declaring them “off the hook” through burned lips. Imagine. And then go. Gong Xi Fa Cai.
- Tea Garden | 166 Lower Road, Surrey Quays SE16 2UN