Food writing is a weird job. Often it’s about trying to figure out if something’s a gimmick or a genuine attempt to make delicious food. And just about every week I eat something I’ve never had before. In the past month I’ve had goi dip (raw beef with bile), a mound of chips covered in fried egg, a steak so colossal it gave me self-esteem issues and a Thai meal so spicy it turned my pee into acid for half a day. But none of that compares to a meal I had last week.
It started with an email from Broadsheet Sydney editor Sarah Norris. She forwarded me a press release about New Shanghai’s new limited-edition dumpling range. The Shanghainese restaurant, which started in Sydney’s Chinatown but now has 10 outlets here and overseas, had just launched eight new dumpling flavours. The restaurant asked its diners what flavours they’d like to see in a dumpling, telling people no suggestion was too wacky. A shortlist was made and the results are now being served.
After years of being traumatised by cafes serving drinks topped with fairy floss and doughnuts, and burgers jammed with so many ingredients you can’t physically fit them into a human mouth, I should have politely declined and moved on with my life. But annoyingly for me, and anyone who’s ever called me a friend, I just can’t say no. I’m the kind of person who’s cooked 35 packets of rigatoni and bathed in it just to know what it’s like to have a pasta bath; the kind of person who watches gory LiveLeak videos; and someone who, when working at Sydney’s Bourke Street Bakery, mashed every single one of its tarts into a bowl of muesli, blended it with coffee and sandwiched it between two other tarts. What I’m saying is: curiosity is my boss. So, of course I said yes.
So here I am, in front of three plates of eight dumplings with photographer Leigh Griffiths, who has come to document the experience. Some are the colour of bark and others are swimming in what looks like liquified salmon meat. One is definitely a spring roll, one is covered in cream and has a cherry on top, and one looks nice. New Shanghai’s appropriately giggly manager Iris Li takes us through each flavour. Griffiths hears nothing so I make him guess what we’re about to eat as we taste test the dumplings. These are our notes.
The Aussie – Vegemite, cheese and bacon
I start with this one for the same reason I’m here: I need to know. If you’re excited by Vegemite you’ll reckon these have a nice golden colour, if not you’ll think they have a muddy pond-water hue. It’s extremely doughy, like a mochi but with more crunch because it’s pan fried. It’s got the same super-salty, savoury flavour of an old-school cheese-and-steak pie. It’s nostalgic and neither enjoyable nor upsetting.
Griffiths: “[It tastes like a] ham and cheese toastie. It’s not good. The cheese is so salty.”
This one looks like a xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) but with a squiggle of Maccas special sauce on top. Inside there’s smoked ham, spinach and egg, all of which cascades out when I take a bite.
Griffiths: “I don’t know what to think about this one. It could be a spinach and feta turnover, but it’s eggy – sweet eggy, Japanese omelette eggy. Ohhh, it’s quiche.”
This is a siu mai stuffed with Australianised carbonara. It tastes like boscaiola (creamy bacon and mushroom) you get at those decade-old Italian restaurants that are never full.
Griffiths: “It’s carbonara. No.”
This is reminiscent of what it’s supposed to be: a Bunning’s sausage sizzle. It’s a bit sweet (the onions have been cooked with brown sugar) but it’s not worse than supermarket white bread wrapped around a $2 sausage.
Griffiths: “This tastes like mum’s really salty meat pies.”
This is a pot sticker filled with smoked trout and pickles and placed in a shallow pool of tomato emulsion. The tomato emulsion doesn’t really add anything but otherwise it’s not bad. I’d eat another one if it was served to me on a cocktail platter at a canapé party.
Griffiths: “Is this salmon mornay? I don’t hate it because I like salmon and you can’t fuck up salmon.”
The only dumpling that didn’t give me a complete sense of cognitive dissonance because it’s just minced meat and a heap of onions in a crunchy-bottomed sheng jian bao (pan-fried steamed bun). It’s a bit sweet already so I wasn’t super keen on the side of tomato sauce. On its own, it’s a solid dumpling with good textural contrast between the dough, the crisp base and the meaty centre.
Griffiths: “Looks like a meat pie. Pretty good. I like the bun – nice and soft. I like it. Is this shepherd’s pie flavour?”
This is a spring roll, not a dumpling, and it’s like a banana-flavoured custard roll. It doesn’t have as much caramel as you’d expect for a banoffee-flavoured something, but it’s not bad. It’s heavy on the banana but I’m not objecting to that. It’s at least texturally interesting.
Griffiths: “I know it but I don’t know it – I’ve had that flavour before.” Goes back for seconds. “I can’t do it. I don’t know. I didn’t mind that one but I wouldn’t order it again.”
You know what Coco Pops is like when you leave it in milk for too long? Soggy pellets floating in the sweetest milk soup on earth? This is like the Coco Pops part of that but without the sogginess. It’s faintly chocolatey, a bit cereal-ly but not particularly sweet. Ultimately quite plain.
Griffiths: “It’s definitely chocolate. It’s chocolate-chip hot cross bun. I used to have those from Coles. But there’s not enough chocolate for me.”
This experience is great for kids. The dumplings are salty, sweet and generally accessible for a tiny human without much context of what a dumpling should taste like. If I was eight I would have loved them but I’m not, I’m 31.
Overall, these eight kooky dumplings aren’t as good as New Shanghai’s xiao long bao. But if you’re anything like me – curious, willing to give pretty much any and all foods a go – you’ll have a good time.
I used to have this saying, one I’d always say to my partner when I was about to add something weird to our dinner or do something potentially unenjoyable for the first time: “someone’s gotta go to the moon”. Neil, Buzz and Charles had no idea what it would feel like to go to the moon. They knew it was risky, but they went there anyway.
I’m not saying eating eight weird dumplings is similar to going to the moon, of course not, but I think I enjoy the unknown, and that it drives me to eat crazy stuff.
The eight special dumplings are available at New Shanghai Chadstone, New Shanghai Westfield Sydney and New Shanghai Queens Plaza until November 10.