Have you ever eaten real dumplings?
I’m not talking about the dumplings in your home country, which have probably been changed for Western tastes. I’m talking about authentic dumplings in China.
When I first arrived in China, I couldn’t believe how amazing the dumplings were. They were nothing like what I was used to eating, and I got a little obsessed with trying as many of them as possible!
Even with all the dumplings I’ve eaten, I can’t say that I’m an expert. But I have tried enough of them to feel comfortable in creating this guide to the most delicious dumplings in China.
What are Chinese dumplings?
They’re pastry-wrapped mouthfuls that can be found all over China. They’re made using unleavened dough and usually have savory fillings like vegetables or meat.
Dumplings can be steamed, boiled or fried and come in almost infinite varieties. Every shop you go to in China will have their own version and there’s nothing more fun than going from one place to another, finding your favorites.
The history of dumplings goes back around 2,000 years. According to stories, they were first invented by a Chinese medicine practitioner known as Zhang Zhongjing.
He created the little bundles of warmth to help his people survive the cold weather and added herbs to improve blood circulation.
Over the years, dumplings have gone through a number of changes and have spread all over the world. But you can still find the tastiest dumplings in the country that birthed them – China.
Different types of dumplings in China
You’ll find a whole range of different kinds of dumplings in China.
And just to make it more difficult, the same dumplings can be called different names or have different Chinese spelling and pronunciation.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of Chinese dumplings. Gao are crescent-shaped while bao are the round dumplings.
And from there, you’ll find endless variations depending on the type of filling, how the dumpling is cooked and folded, and what type of wrappers are used.
This may sound confusing, but what it really means is that you need to try as many dumplings as possible and see which ones you like!
These are the most popular type of dumpling and are probably what you’re used to seeing and eating back home. They’re fairly simple dumplings, with ground meat or vegetables in a fairly opaque skin.
Most commonly, jiaozi contain a mix of cabbage, ground pork and scallions, and come with a dipping sauce made from vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce.
These dumplings can be cooked in different ways, including:
- Boiled (shui jiao or 水饺)
- Steamed (zheng jiao or 蒸饺)
- Steam fried (jian jiao or 煎饺)
- Deep fried (zha jiao or 炸饺).
Potstickers (Guo tie) 锅贴
Essentially these are a kind of fried jiaozi, though the shape is different.
They’re pan-fried in a shallow wok with a small amount of water and covered. This makes them crispy on the bottom and steamed on top.
I found these hard to find in the south of China where I was. They’re more a northern thing.
Wontons are another popular type of Chinese dumplings that have gone global. They come with a wide variety of fillings and can be boiled, steamed or fried.
The most common type of wonton is made from a wheat flour wrapper and has a filling made from ground pork and shrimp. You’ll also find that the fillings and preparation methods vary depending on where you are in China.
Boiled wontons are particularly good, served in broth or soup and really comforting in cold weather.
Sheng jian 生煎
These dumplings are delicious but can be a bit challenging to eat! They’re one of Shanghai’s signature dishes and are usually made with a filling of pork and seafood along with herbs and scallions.
They’re cooked in a skillet that’s partially filled with water, which steams the dumplings while giving the bottoms a really nice crunchy texture.
The part of the dumpling that’s unusual and a little challenging is the broth. These dumplings are made with jellified broth which melts when cooked. So, when you bite into it, the broth gushes out into your mouth.
The broth is delicious but it’s also scorching hot and can burn your mouth if you aren’t careful.
After a bit of experimenting, I found that the best way to eat these buns is to bite a small hole near the top and slowly slurp out the broth first. Then you can eat the rest of the dumpling without scalding yourself or spitting hot broth across the table.
Xiao long bao 小笼包
These dumplings are similar to sheng jian bao, only they’re not fried.
Known also as soup dumplings, xiao long bao have thinner skins than sheng jian bao and are filled with ground meat and seafood as well as jelly made from chicken or pork stock.
These dumplings are steamed so they’re soft and delicious. Just be very careful when you bite them open, as the broth is usually incredibly hot!
The trick is not to let them cool down too much though, as they taste a lot better when they’re warm. This is why I wouldn’t recommend ordering xiao long bao on a food delivery app in China.
Har gow 虾饺
Har gow is a traditional Cantonese dumpling served in dim sum. You’ll find them in restaurants in southern China and Hong Kong.
These crescent-shaped dumplings have wrappers made of wheat and tapioca starch, making them transparent and slightly stretchy when cooked. They usually contain shrimp, pork fat, and bamboo shoots steamed to firm, juicy perfection.
Har gow dumplings are so pretty and small, they’re easy to overdose on!
Baozi dumplings are like small, doughy buns. They’re yeasty and pillowy, with much thicker skin than other types of dumplings.
You’ll actually find baozi all over the world and they make an amazing, quick meal when you’re on the run.
There are several popular baozi varieties available in China including:
- Sheng jian bao, which is steamed and filled with pork (as mentioned above)
- Cha siu bao, which is filled with BBQ pork
- Gua bao, which are open buns that can contain almost anything
- Tang baozi which are filled with delicious broth
- Doushabao, which contain a sweet red bean paste.
Many food places will have baozi in a warming oven ready to go. The places which have high turnover tend to be the best as the ovens can dry out the baozi if they’ve been sitting there all day.
You’ve been warned!
Shao mai 烧卖
Shao mai dumplings are associated with Cantonese cuisine but can be found all over China and outside of it as well.
They actually originated in Inner Mongolia and are unsealed dumplings, with the top open to show the filling.
Shao mai dumplings can be stuffed with just about anything, from different meats to sticky rice, but most often they contain pork mince with mushrooms. They may also have a tiny shrimp on top.
Sold in food markets all over Taiwan, ba-wan dumplings are the perfect combination of sweet and savory.
They have a unique texture because of the wrapper, which is made with a mix of sweet potato and rice flour, so they’re chewy and delicious.
Ba-wan are usually filled with pork mince, bamboo and mushrooms and are topped with a sweet and savory sauce. You can eat them steamed or fried.
Tang yuan 汤圆
Of course, I didn’t skimp on the dessert dumplings while I was in China, and neither should you.
Tang yuan dumplings are made from glutinous rice flower and boiled in sweetened water. They can be unfilled or contain anything from chopped peanuts to fruit and chocolate.
These dumplings are usually eaten warm and they’re popular during Chinese New Year celebrations, as they’re said to bring good luck.
Even if that isn’t true, they’re still a delicious end to any meal and a great snack.
(I’ve written an entire article dedicated to Chinese desserts if you want to learn more.)
How to eat dumplings
This might sound simple, after all you’ve been eating since you were a baby. But if you’re used to Western food, then you might find dumplings in China more difficult to manage than you might think.
Here are some tips for eating dumplings like a pro without making a mess:
- Eat each dumpling in one bite, which means letting them cool a bit first
- Use chopsticks to eat them but don’t stab at them
- Dumplings in soup should be eaten with a spoon
- For a soft dumpling, pick it up with chopsticks near the knot and place it on a spoon
- For dumplings with broth, take a small bite out of it while it’s still on the spoon and be careful not to scald your mouth
- Enjoy your dumplings with sauce, e.g. two parts vinegar and one part soy sauce
- For a little spice, enjoy your dumplings with chili oil.
What to eat with dumplings in China
Dumplings can be your entire meal, and I recommend this myself for a fast, budget feed.
But they can also be a starter or part of your main meal when accompanied by other side dishes. The best advice I can give here is for you to watch the local customs.
In some areas, you’ll find that the locals eat a plate of dumplings with a small plate of greens and another of noodles in broth. This is actually a pretty complete meal and is often very cheap if you aren’t in the tourist areas.
It’s also surprisingly satisfying and one of the more unexpected things that I miss about traveling in China. If you want to eat like the locals, who really know their food, then I recommend trying this combination.
In cities in the west of the country, like Chongqing, steamed jiaozi in soup will almost burn your taste buds. The soup will practically be red with chili.
So, you could pair that up with something a little more soothing, along with some Chinese tea.
How do you make Chinese dumplings?
I’m not exactly a Master chef so I’ll leave that to the experts.
One of the most highly rated online dumpling recipes is for pan-fried potstickers. It’s from the family-run team at The Woks for Life – the authority on Chinese cooking.
How do you say dumpling in Chinese?
Each kind of dumpling has its own special name, but the generic term is jiăozi (饺子).
If you’re after a specific dumpling in China and you can’t speak Mandarin, use a translation app on your phone and show the staff. Just remember to get a VPN before you go to China so you can use all your favorite apps and websites.
Check out the guide on the best VPN for China before you fly over there (VPN apps are blocked in China).
Dumplings in China are the best!
While you’re visiting China, you need to make sure that you try as many dumplings as possible. I set myself the goal to try them in as many cities and shops as possible, and I never regretted that choice!
I hope you have an amazing culinary adventure in China.
The food is definitely one of the best things about visiting China. So before you go, take a read of some of these other helpful articles:
- Popular foods from China – all the classics
- Best Chinese street food – as rated by a foreigner
- Vegan food in China – tips to help you avoid animal products.
You may also like the one about craft beer in China. Beer is the perfect partner for fried dumplings!
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about dumplings in China
Are dumplings from China?
Yes. Chinese medicine practitioner, Zhang Zhongjing, is said to have invented dumplings thousands of years ago to help people survive the cold weather.
Why are dumplings popular in China?
There are many reasons why Chinese people love dumplings – they’re delicious, affordable, filling, and they can be cooked and served in a variety of ways. Dumplings can also symbolize prosperity. Dumplings are engrained in Chinese culture and history.
How much are dumplings in China?
The cost of dumplings varies across China. A simple serving of dumplings, on average, may cost around 20 RMB. This is about US$3.
Are Chinese dumplings bad for you?
They’re not bad for you in moderation. Steamed and boiled dumplings are better than fried ones. You can also buy vegetable dumplings if you want to eat less meat.