Dumplings are a Melbourne Friday night dinner staple. It doesn’t matter how many restaurants pop up around the CBD serving these delicious parcels of joy, all of them are heaving with after work drinkers and dirty dumpling enthusiasts on Friday nights. I have spent countless Friday evenings with friends wandering around the city in my sensible work heels looking for a dumpling restaurant that will take a group without a booking. We are always last minute and we are always left on the footpath waiting in a line. But it’s worth it. At the end of the week, after work drinks, nothing else will do.
Jump on a tram and travel only a few minutes out of the CBD and you can avoid the dumpling queues. Carlton (yes Carlton) is home to Ma’s Dumpling Den, a little known almost hidden dumpling restaurant. There is nothing fancy about Ma’s, nothing of note hanging on her walls or adorning her ceiling. But that’s how I like it, no pretension. It’s just a small, simple restaurant in Carlton serving good food without a queue.
I visited Ma’s on a Friday night with three of my oldest friends. We arrived at 7.15 pm without a booking but it was no problem – we walked straight in and got a table.
Ma’s has a good selection of dumpling favourites like beef, pork, vegetable and sui mai. Also on offer are a selection of dumplings in “chilli oil” and my personal favourite, the delightful soup filled xiao long bao. Most of Ma’s dumplings can be ordered either fried or steamed which is great when creating your own dumpling feast. We went for the xiao long bao, a serve of fried pork dumplings, fried vegetable dumplings and steamed vegetable dumplings in chilli oil.
Although not very photogenic, the pork dumplings were crisp and delicious. They had been pan-fried and were browned at the bottom providing a fantastic crunch as you bit into them. The pork was not really juicy but it had a great flavour, sweet and subtle. We devoured them almost instantly and had to order another serve. They were fantastic.
Next came the fried vegetable dumplings, looking pretty much identical to their fried pork friends. They had the same wonderful crispness as the fried pork but were filled with shredded vegetables like carrot and mushroom – there may have been some zucchini too. Again, the dumplings had a lovely light flavour. It was refreshing to have real bits of shredded vegetables in there rather than everything being minced together into some unidentifiable mush. You could taste the gorgeous mushroom and carrot. We loved them – a fantastic option for our vegetarian friends out there.
By far the most visually beautiful dish of the night was the steamed vegetable dumplings in chilli oil. The dumplings were filled with the same shredded vegetables as the fried dumplings but were drowning in a luxurious deep red chilli oil and sprinkled with coriander and crunchy bits of fried onion. The dumplings were a little soft for me but had good flavour, especially when eaten with the coriander and crunchy onion. But the star of the dish was the chilli oil. It was more sweet than hot, providing only a small lingering zing on the mouth after eating. I could have taken some extra heat but the flavour was excellent. By the end of the night, we were dunking all the dumplings into that sweet slippery sauce. It was delicious.
Next came the xiao long bao and I was excited when a couple of my friends said they had never tried them before. These are the dumplings filled with soup that when done well (and eaten properly) are absolutely divine. I was once told that the correct way to eat xiao long bao is to dip the dumpling in the sauces (with ginger usually), sit the dumpling on your spoon, take a small bite of the skin and then slurp until all that lovely broth is gone. I have since found this fantastic (and hilarious) youtube video by Californian food bloggers 626 foodettes which provides a step by step guide on how to do it – click here and enjoy!
Ma’s xiao long bao were nice but not the stand out dish of the night. Usually when I eat xiao long bao I manage to have at least some of the soup dribble out into the spoon or down my face if I’m very unlucky (xiao long bao – perhaps not a great choice for a first date). I take this as a good sign, even if I lose some of the broth in the process. I didn’t have that problem here but the dumplings were still tasty and enjoyed by all.
There are other dishes on Ma’s menu that I would like to try, like the Shanghai noodles or the wonton soup with egg noodles. If only I worked around the corner I could see Ma’s becoming one of my weekly lunch spots. I’ll have to drag My Love there one day for a weekend lunch.
Ma’s Dumpling Den is a fabulous little dumpling restaurant in Carlton. The mood is relaxed which makes it perfect for spending a couple of hours with friends eating, drinking and catching up. There is no rush to finish and some fantastic cafe`s around the around the area if you feel like a coffee or something more afterward. A real little gem only minutes out of the CBD. I will be back.
Ma’s Dumpling Den – 88 Grattan Street, Carlton