I was once a dessert-dumpling sceptic – I never believed the sweet ones could be on the same level as the savoury. But a few in Melbourne have converted me.
From a Lebanese take on the cheese plate to a technically savoury Cantonese bun; here are some of Melbourne’s best sweet dumplings.
Cheese mamool at Bar Saracen
Traditionally served at Easter, these Lebanese dumplings sit smack-bang on the fence between sweet and savoury. A crumbly shortbread pastry just barely contains the cheese filling, which is a mix of mild, fresh goat’s cheese and kasseri, a hard cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk.
“[The cheese is] either Turkish or Greek, whoever claimed it first,” says Bar Saracen front-of-house staffer Kelly Woodnutt.
The dumplings are served atop a hefty dollop of fig and sesame jam, giving them the sugary hit they need to skate between a dessert and cheese course. Be gentle; the cheese is sensually stretchy.
Sour-cherry pelmeni at Little Odessa
Piroshki, pierogi, pelmeni, and other Eastern European dumplings are often flung straight from the pan’s butter bubbles to the plate, finished with an unhealthy mound of sour cream or inundated in butter and bacon. There’s usually nothing elegant about them, though many hours of labour goes into producing them.
At Fitzroy’s Ukrainian diner Little Odessa, the pelmeni are pretty little things. Four delicate, ear-shaped dumplings (filled with a cinnamon-spiked sour-cherry mixture) are boiled, lightly pan-fried and served on a plate-long schmear of sour cherry reduction, and then topped with tiny cubes of strawberries and chiffonnade mint.
Steamed egg-custard buns at Hutong
Hutong is known for its silky, sprightly xiao long bao and chilli wantons. The pastry is so thin and glossy, you really need to handle them with care. Their steamed egg-custard buns are the opposite: they’re fluffy and substantial. The centre is a golden, thick, almost-malleable custard. It doesn’t run or ooze; it’s more of a rich paste. If you’re a real masochist you can get them deep-fried.
Golden lava mochi balls at Din Tai Fung
On the other end of the spectrum, Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung makes crisp, chewy mochi balls that can barely hold their filling. “Lava” is apt. The liquid custard bursts out of the fried, sesame-coated casing and will run all down your chin. Best lean over your plate for these.
Gulab jamun at Bhang
Gulab jamun dough is made with flour, milk powder, cheese curds and ghee. It’s then deep-fried and soaked in spiced sugar syrup. It’s a filling-less dumpling, yes, but with the amount of syrup these suckers absorb, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve been injected. Their sweetness is momentarily disarmed by house-made cardamom ice-cream and chopped pistachios.
Honourable mention: barbeque pork buns at Tim Ho Wan
Technically these are savoury, but the sugar crust on Tim Ho Wan’s famed barbeque pork bun is a contender for dessert. The casing is not thick and gluggy like some pork buns; it’s soft, spongy and light. Inside is smoky pork in a very sweet, sharp barbeque sauce. The crowning glory is that sugar crust cracking when you bite in.