Ultimate guide to Chinese dumplings

Ultimate guide to Chinese dumplings

Need a bite? Try this roundup of the tasty, fun-sized "firecrackers" that fuel 1.3 billion (and counting) stomachs

Rice is nice, noodles are great, but if an online poll were to solicit votes for China's most rational national food, dumplings would come out way ahead.

Dumplings great and small enjoy unique names, traditions and areas where they're scarfed by the bucket-load.

Here's a thoughtfully chosen buffet of the most iconic dumplings China has to offer.

Chinese dumplings -- inline 1Chinese dumplings, pure and simple.

Shui jiao (水饺)

Shui jiao, or boiled dumpling, is a staple food, especially in northern China.

During Lunar New Year, families in the north turn into super-efficient dumpling production lines -- grandma rolls out the dumpling skin, mom mixes minced pork and vegetables for the filling, and the rest of the family pinching dumplings into crescent-like shapes.

Zealous cooks will hide a lucky coin inside a dumpling for a fortunate eater to find.

Laobian Jiaozi Guan in Shenyang has specialized in making shui jiao for more than 150 years. Fish shui jiao is the regional specialty.

Laobian Jiaozi Gun, 208 Zhong Jie Lu, across from Rose Hotel, Shenyang; +86 24 2486 5369; open daily, 9:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 2Traditional food for the Lantern Festival.

Tang tuan or yuan xiao (汤团或元宵)

Tang tuans are round, gooey soup dumplings made by enclosing a sweet or savory filling in a glutinous rice flour ball.

Popular fillings include sesame paste, powdered peanuts and sugar for sweet tang tuan, or pork with green onion for the savory kind.

Tang tuans are eaten during the Lantern Festival, the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations. Their shape emphasizes a unified family.

The tang tuan shops in the Qibao Old Town boil some of the most traditional round dumplings.

Old Street Tang Tuan shops, 14 and 26 Qi Bao Lao Jie Nan Da Jie ; +86 21 6459 2917; open daily 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 3To eat these soupy dumplings, be a Zen master with chopsticks.

Xiaolongbao (小笼包)

Cubes of meat aspic (gelatinized broth) and pork filling are carefully hand-pleated into thin Xiaolongbao wrappers and steamed.

Within that dumpling skin is a bomb of rich soup and a filling of tender pork, or pork with hairy crab meat and roe.

The fame of xiaolongbao is such that you can find the name slapped onto dubious menus throughout China.

Even in the city of its origin (xiaolongbao were invented in Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai), there are many takes.

Spend the day eating the various incarnations and find out your favorite or hit these xiaolongbao eateries that serve the best of those soupy pockets in Shanghai.  

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 4Shaxian steamed dumplings.

Zheng jiao (蒸饺)

Zheng jiaos are usually filled with a combination of minced meat and vegetables, and steamed to doneness in a bamboo round to retain the fresh flavors of the ingredients.

There are many variations -- har gow is one that's gained its own celebrity.

Zheng Jiao is often more delicate than their boiled and pan-fried counterparts.

Another well-known variety comes from Shaxian in Fujian Province. They are filled with pork or beef and hand-pleated to look like little mice.

Find these specialty zhen jiao at Shaxian Xiao Chi, one of the biggest restaurant chains in China. They are everywhere, just look around the corner.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 5Wontons in their mini form.

Hun tun (馄饨)

Hun tun, aka wonton, can be served dozens of different ways. 

There are two classic types: carefully folded large wonton filled with bokchoy or wild watercress and minced pork, and “xiao wonton,” tiny dumplings floating in a fresh cilantro and sesame oil broth.

The Cantonese rendition features plump segments of shrimp in the filling and a side of egg noodles in the soup.

Sichuan cuisine offers chao shou -- poached wontons drizzled in toasty chili oil, pepper corns, and green onion. The best is at Chen Ma Po Sichuan Restaurant in Chengdu.

Chen Ma Po Sichuan Restaurant, Room 10-12, 10 Qinghua Lu, Chengdu; +86 028 87317216; 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; www.chenmapo.com

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 6The ambassador of Chinese dim sum.

Har gow (虾饺)

Translucent har gow filled with chubby shrimp are the darlings of the dim sum cart.

For many, this pretty pink crescent is the gateway to a lifelong obsession with Chinese dumplings.

A top-notch har gow wrapping should be just thick enough to wedge between chopsticks without breakage -- never chewy or too sticky.

Dab them in red vinegar to bring out the flavors.

The best shrimp dumplings are in Guangdong Province, where they were first invented, or Hong Kong, where sub-par har gow aren’t tolerated. Luk Yu Teahouse in Central serves the best.

Luk Yu Teahouse, G/F-3/F, 24 Stanley St.; open daily, 7 am-10 pm; +852 2523 5464; dim sum is available until 4 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 7Shanghai street snack.

Sheng jian (生煎)

The image of sheng jian is often associated with the cook at a breakfast stall taking a heavy wooden lid off of a giant black pan.

Inside, there are rows and rows of sesame and green onion studded dumplings, their bottoms searing to crispness.

Sheng jian is a Shanghainese breakfast dumpling that is fried to crustiness on the bottom, steamed to perfection on top, and eaten with vinegar.

Once you bite into the soft, mantou-like skin, there’s a meatball of seasoned pork and a flood of broth.

Xiao Yang Sheng Jian is one of the most popular in Shanghai.

Xiao Yang Sheng Jian, 2/F, 269 Wujiang Lu, near Taixing Lu; +86 21 61361391; open daily 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 8Popular across China.

Guo tie (锅贴)

Potstickers, or guo tie, are the crusty, thicker-skinned cousins of the shui jiao.

These ingot-shaped dumplings are pan-fried for a crispy bottom and steamed to doneness on top. Each one is a two-fold texture experience.

They are usually made with a pork-based filling with bokchoy, leeks or cabbage.

Overseas Dragon is a chained restaurant specialized in potstickers. The guo ties at Shanghainese restaurant Xiao Nan Guo are juicy and are an ideal comfort food.

Overseas Dragon (Huaihai Dong Lu chain), 70 Huaihai Dong Lu, near Yunnan Nan Lu, Shanghai; open daily 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Xiao Nan Guo, 4/F, 9 Donghu Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai; +86 400 820 9777; open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 9Dumplings from the Himalayas.

Momo (馍馍)

Topping off the list of Tibetan comfort foods, momo are larger, hearty dumplings that exist somewhere between a jiao zi and a samosa.

The combinations of filling are many and always spiced. Potato and minced vegetables, and ground chicken, yak, and beef flavored with ginger, coriander and garlic are popular variations.

Momo can be round or crescent-shaped. Usually they are steamed or fried, and served with a fiery homemade chili sauce (sepen) and a bowl of soothing broth.

The real deal can be found at the Snow Deity Palace Tibetan Restaurant in Lhasa.

Snow Deity Palace Tibetan Restaurant, 4 Zanyiyuan Road, west of the Potala Palace Plaza, Lhasa; +86 891 633 7323; Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 10Another dumpling that appears all over China with regional variations.

Shao mai (烧卖)

Originating from Inner Mongolia, these are money bag-shaped dumplings which gush steam from the fillings exposed on top.

In the southern Yangtze River region, the hefty shao mai are made with glutinous rice, pork, mushrooms. 

There is also a smaller but visually stunning version called fei cui shao mai. Its wrappers resemble pieces of jade and are clear on top and deep green in color on the bottom.

Our favorite shao mai come from Duyichu Shaomai in Beijing, a specialty restaurant patronized by the Emperor Qianlong himself in the 1750s.

These dumplings have frilly, paper-thin flour wrappers enclosing a range of fillings that vary with the seasons.

Duyichu Shaomai, 38 Qianmen Da Jie, Beijing; +86 10 6702 1555, +86 10 6702 1671; open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

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Chinese dumplings -- inline 11Halal fare.

Manti (新疆薄皮包子)

Manti is the most underappreciated dumpling on this list, but the Xinjiang-style mutton dumplings are absolutely delectable and deserving of much more attention.

They are straightforward, deeply satisfying and always have that essential taste of home.

The best manti come from some road-side shack in Xinjiang but we have never tasted bad mantis from any Uyghur establishment.

Check out Tiyuguan Lu in downtown Urumqi for a variety of Muslim restaurants and roadside eateries.

Originally published July 2012, updated May 25, 2013.

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Joanne Yao is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.
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