My love affair with cheap Chinese steamed dumplings began in my twenties, when I lived diagonally across from a Chinese takeout place called “Peking II” in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. I would arrive home at the end of each day, and hadn’t yet figured out how to cook for myself, so my inexpensive, fast go-to dinner was often an aluminum tray full of steamed pork dumplings, and a six pack of Coor’s Light.
For a young, single man not yet earning enough money to figure out how to live in the city he’s chosen, it was the perfect meal. The starch from the dumpling wrappers would swell to fill my nutritionally void belly, fueled by zillions of bubbles from the heavily CO2’d domestic beer I was pouring by the quart on top of them. And they were dirt cheap; I think a tray of eight dumplings cost about $3, which meant I could get reasonably full and unreasonably drunk for under $10. A bargain, by metropolitan standards.
NYC-style takeout dumplings are unique, and certainly not what the fashionably broke kids on the West Coast were getting, with their delicate Hong Kong jaiozi, with thinly rolled dough and fillings fortified with kombu and dried shrimp, and dotted with bits of Napa cabbage and bright green scallion. No, NYC-style dumplings are kind of their own beast; doughier, certainly, with big hits of acid from the rice wine vinegar and soy-based dipping sauce. They’re a celebration of texture and temperature, as much as flavor, and I still get choked up when I imagine the rush of joy I would feel when taking the lid off of a sweaty tray of these dumplings, to this day.
In an effort to re-introduce this staple to my diet, I decided to do a comparison of every single frozen, ready-to-cook frozen supermarket Chinese dumpling I could find. Here are the results.
The Control Dumplings: Takeout from China Fortune, Thomaston, Maine
Right away, I have to admit that my methodology is flawed, because I happen to live in a place where the Chinese takeout options are so few, and so very bad, that using them as a control group for the rest of the experiment hardly even makes sense. I’ve never understood this, since I would imagine most of the Chinese food being served elsewhere is arriving frozen from the same basement supplier in Chinatown, so I don’t understand the rapid drop in quality for Chinese takeout as you move North from New York, somewhere along the “Peking Ravioli” line of demarcation located around Methuen, Massachusetts. It still seemed important to establish a baseline, though, so here they are.
Price: $6.43, including tax
Price per dumpling: $1.28
Preparation method: Magically produced by a hirsute, shouting tween.
Notes: Like a lot of dumplings this far North, the dumplings available at China Fortune are weirdly enormous, and oddly expensive, at over one dollar per dumpling. The dough is rolled ridiculously thickly, and pinched into a chewy crescent around a large pocket of meat, which is loosely packed and studded with clearly recognizable bits of scallion. It does seem noteworthy that on the phone, I specifically order “Steamed Pork Dumplings,” but every single time they read the order back, the dish is described as “Steamed Meat Dumplings.”
There is airspace between the filling and the wrapper sufficient to fill with the accompanying dipping sauce, a standard-issue mixture of rice wine vinegar, a dab of sesame oil, and soy sauce, which I combine with an ounce or two or hot mustard, because I am trash. Total prep time from phone call to pickup is under ten minutes. Overall, these are not good dumplings, even for bad Chinese takeout, but they meet my needs and help to establish some talking points.
Ready? Onto the frozen contenders!
Name: Kahiki Pork Potstickers
Price per dumpling: $0.28
Preparation method: Boiled
Notes: In order to remain as close to the pleasantly rubbery texture of takeout “steamed” dumplings (which I strongly suspect are also really boiled), we chose this preparation method whenever possible, unless the directions didn’t recommend it or strongly suggested another method. The dumplings from Kahiki have a much thinner wrapper, that is light and barely opaque, but rubbery rather than doughy. The flavor of the smallish pork filling is excellent, though I wish there was more of it, with some unrecognizably strange, chewy knuckly bits hidden inside.
Tasted without sauce, there isn’t much in the way of flavor, but there is a light taste of ginger that isn’t overpowering. This is surprising, because the smell that fills your kitchen when you open the bag is terrible. Heating up the dipping sauce is a snap; it comes individually packaged, and you just thaw it under some warm running water. The sauce itself is a revelation, offering tons of bright, sharp rice wine vinegar flavor, and subtle sesame notes. Eaten with the sauce, and in spite of the off-putting odor, I was pleasantly surprised with how good these were.
Score: 2.4 out of 5
Name: P.F. Chang’s Signature Pork Dumplings
Price per dumpling: $0.43
Preparation method: Boiled, then pan-fried
Notes: Though “ease of preparation” is a definite factor in this evaluation, and we tried to be consistent across all products, P.F. Chang’s seemed weirdly insistent about their recommended preparation instructions, which go something like this: Arrange dumplings in a skillet. Add a little water. Cook until water evaporates, then cook a little more, so that in theory, you end up with a dumpling with a steamed top, and a lightly crispy bottom.
That’s…sort of what happens. The finished product is super glossy and wet-looking, much like the interior design of a P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro restaurant. They do have a tendency to stick to the pan, and prying them out diminishes their finished appearance somewhat. The wrapper is thin, and isn’t very chewy; the wrapper here acts as more of an envelope for the filling, rather than a feature player. The filling portion is large, and is recognizably pork, with a few bits of mixed scallion throughout. The flavor of the filling itself is decidedly porky, with a coarse, meaty texture. The accompanying dipping sauce (which again, gets warmed under running water) is much more sesame-forward* with some bright vinegar notes. Overall, these scored higher in our testing then Kahiki’s dumplings, but were still somewhat disappointing in light of the strength of the P.F. Chang’s brand.
*Not to worry: Typing this made me want to punch me in the face, too.
Score: 2.6 out of 5