The word dumpling is an umbrella term, like pasta or sushi. Within Chinese cuisine alone, there are several different styles, types and variations of dumplings, each subtly influenced by their origin. It makes it hard to know exactly what you’re ordering unless you’ve been privy to a rundown from a connoisseur.
Someone who does know is Bernard Kong Kok Weng, the chef de cuisine at Chinese restaurant Silks on Melbourne’s Southbank. Kong’s 14 years in the industry makes him an expert when it comes to understanding the nuances of a Chinese dumpling.
Geography and providence
Understanding the origin and technique of a dish can give the diner a whole new appreciation for what’s on the plate, says Bernard. “When you say Chinese cooking, everybody just thinks China,” says the chef. “But different cultures within China have different cooking styles. For example, Cantonese stir-fry is really quick on the wok with a really high heat applied, whereas in Sichuan and Jiangsu it’s more braised items. And each region uses different ingredients. It’s a very broad scope.”
A Chinese dumpling is “filling wrapped with either a rice-flour dough or plain-flour dough,” says Bernard. The rice flour is translucent, while the latter is too thick to see the filling inside. These form the basis for the three main styles of Chinese dumplings.
“The standard ones we have at Silks – the normal ones you find in Australia – is the prawn dumpling which is the har gow,” Bernard says of his favourite, listed on the menu as crystal skin prawn dumpling. “Then you get the siu mai, which is egg-flour pastry, but the wrapping style is different. Usually it’s filled with either chicken or pork, pork and prawn, or chicken and prawn.” Both styles have Cantonese origins. Then there’s the xiao long bao from the Jiangnan region of China. “That one is the normal plain flour you steam with pork and then get the soup inside the dumpling after steaming,” says Bernard.
So what’s the secret behind making the perfect dumpling? “Practice,” Bernard says. “It takes many years to master the wrapping of the dumplings and the preparation of the skin.” He explains how the dough of the har gow prawn dumpling is rolled out like a snake and portioned by hand for individual rolling. “You actually flatten the dough with a knife instead of a rolling pin,” he says. “Put just a dab of oil on the knife and spread it out – like peanut butter.” With this technique it’s also key to wrap the dumpling while it’s still slightly warm.
Bernard says a dumpling with thick skin can be a dead giveaway for not being a real Chinese dumpling. At Silks they’re made fresh every morning by sous chefs to ensure consistency. “A lot of dumplings being made now are commercialised [with machines],” he says. “They’re not hand-made.”
The secret to a good dumpling filling hinges on the quality of produce. “We only source product locally and use the freshest we can find,” says Bernard. For Silks’ prawn dumplings, “the fresher the prawn, the more crunchy the dumpling will feel after steaming.” Bernard tries not to use tiger prawns as fillings due to their tougher skin, preferring vannamei prawns or Queensland prawns. The style of filling also dictates the precise steaming time: prawn dumplings for seven minutes, chicken for seven and a half, pork for eight.
A new style of dumpling
While Chinese dumplings are profoundly influenced by history and tradition, Bernard says there is a “new culture in dumplings.” Recent combinations feature crabmeat and pork xiao long bao; matsutake mushrooms with chicken siu mai, and squid-ink har gow. “[At Silks] we have a ginger and spring onion lobster dumpling,” he says. “We weren’t sure whether it would work or not but it’s now one of our menu favourites. When it comes to dumplings I think [people] should be open-minded.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Crown Melbourne . Sample Bernard’s Chinese dumplings at Silks, Crown Melbourne.