Unless one is eating in a dim sum parlor, there’s a good chance that the dumplings and bao gobbled up in any given establishment have been frozen at some point in their existence. Depending on how long they’ve been in the freezer, and how well they’ve been sealed, this doesn’t generally have a deleterious effect. Few frozen pizzas are very good — even the priciest ones don’t keep pace with fresh brick oven pies — but a wide swath of supermarket dumplings approach the quality of excellent restaurant versions.
They are among the world’s top frozen foods.
Accordingly, critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton rated the East Asian dumplings and bao that they found in their local freezer cases, including Japanese gyoza, Korean mandoo, Cantonese char siu bao, and Shanghainese xiaolongbao. Unlike with previous columns, no winners or losers are declared, since the bulk of what Sietsema and Sutton sampled were of exceedingly high quality. A bamboo steamer, which perfumes one’s kitchen with a soothing woodsy scent, was used to test many of the specimens, though some were pan-fried or boiled.
Gourmet Family jumbo pork gyoza dumplings (1 pound, $6.89): Made in the USA, these largish elongated dumplings with a wobbly ridge on top have a wrapper midway between thick and thin, and hold up well to the combined frying and steaming process. The pork innards taste of green onions, soy, and garlic, and are nearly identical to the ones you get in a Japanese restaurant, or perhaps a shade better. And when you sizzle them, they stink up the kitchen in the most delicious way. Grade: A — Sietsema
Prime Food steam roasted pork buns (30 ounces, $7.99): For those who miss the sweet char siu bao sold at the city’s myriad Chinese bakeries, Brooklyn-based Prime Food puts out a seriously good home alternative. The bun’s exterior flaunts an off-white sheen, while decorative folds evoke the shape of a whole star anise. Steam rises from the bao when torn, releasing a sweet, porky aroma. The flavors are clean and simple: The bun is spongy and neutral, while the stewed meat gives off notes of intense umami and sugar. Pair with tea for your daily quarantine breakfast. Grade: A — Sutton
3 Meals A Day mini spicy pork bun (8.45 ounces, $5.99): Made by ACC Foods in Thorofare, NJ, these small round Chinese dumplings with a spike at the top are easily prepared by boiling for five minutes. As the name implies, they pack quite a wallop of heat and umami, the latter coming from XO sauce and mushrooms, making them taste like a smoldering pork meatloaf. Grade A- — Sietsema
Dongwon spicy octopus dumplings (26.8 ounces, $8.99): These chubby Korean dumplings, which look like baby stegosaurus torsos, channel the aggressively hot flavor profile of a spicy Seoul classic: nakji bokkeum (stir-fried octopus with chiles). The red mash of cephalopods glows menacingly red from inside the translucent wrapper. The first bite gives off a vague whiff of the ocean, then the heat takes over your tongue, your body, your larger perception of space and time. Produced by Dongwong, a South Korea-based company, this is the spiciest frozen food I’ve encountered. Grade: A — Sutton
Prime Food mini soupy bun with pork and crab roe (20 ounces, $5.99): These dumplings aren’t as intensely juicy and soupy as many xiaolongbao — one can eat them without a spoon — but the clarity of flavor is stunning. The bao is stout, holding a few sips of crab juice that’s equal parts sweet and funky, like a nice high tide breeze. The pork, in turn, is loosely packed and mild, acting as a neutral conduit for the majestic seafood flavors. Grade: A — Sutton
Wei-Chuan Sichuan-style spicy pork dumplings (20 ounces, $5.99): The Los Angeles County-headquartered Wei Chuan, one of the country’s largest Chinese food manufacturers, is responsible for the excellence here; these brilliantly fragrant dumplings could easily command three times the price in a sit-down restaurant. A little red oil appears from underneath the skin, sometimes dribbling out the side. The wrapper is firm and almost al dente, while the chile oil imparts more aroma than spice, lending a sweet and faintly bitter perfume to the meaty pork. These are truly outstanding. Grade: A — Sutton
The House Mandu beef and vegetable dumplings (24 ounces, $9.99): With Korean mandoo dumplings, it’s either go big or go home. Fried on the bottom in a steamy enclosed vessel, these hedgehog-shaped purses bulge with ribeye, vegetables, and clear vermicelli. The mild flavor is exquisite, identical to the appetizer dumplings found in Korean barbecues, with a slight black pepper afterburn. These would be perfect if only the flavor were hiked up a notch. Grade A- — Sietsema
Nissui’s crab shumai (12 pieces, $3.99): These dumplings by Nissui, a Tokyo-based company, are ultra-soft, mimicking the loosely packed texture of crab and the crustacean’s sweet muskiness. The thin, gossamer wrappers do their best to let the seafaring flavor of the filling shine. Grade: A- — Sutton
3 Meals A Day soupy pork buns with crab roe (6.3 ounces, $4.99): These xiaolongbao of sorts have a slightly shorter circumference than the Prime Food variety, and seem to have less broth for slurping. Some of the specimens exhibit a firm density of meat, while the crab flavor ranges from mild and almost imperceptible to powerfully sweet and heady. They might not be the best of the bunch, but they are still darn fine dumplings. Grade: A- — Sutton
Ajinomoto shrimp shumai (17.46 ounces, $11.49): Ajinomoto is a Japanese food and biotechnology powerhouse with a manufacturing facility in Portland, Oregon. The flavor of these small and distinctively shaped steamed dumplings with a frill around the top are familiar to anyone who has dined in a Japanese restaurant. That taste is somewhat shrimpy, with little shards of seafood detectable in the pasty matrix inside. They also taste like surimi, making them creamy and fishy. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Grade: B- — Sietsema
Wei-Chuan pork and cilantro dumplings (21 ounces, 8.99): The elongated and undulant dumplings contain a mixture of finely ground pork and chopped cilantro. To prepare, do repeated boilings with the addition of cold water in between to bring the temperature down. This results in a very plump dumpling with a diaphanous wrapper, which is great, but the interior is rendered rather bland, considering the quantity of cilantro. Grade: B+ — Sietsema
Sinei Matsumoto ippon leek gyoza (8.47 ounces, $5.29): These dumplings manufactured in Japan by Sinei Foods are found in several Japanese groceries around town, including the Dainobu chain, with three branches in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. They reproduce a specialty gyoza from the city of Nagano that contains a filling of local leeks, which in this case involves a mild moosh of cabbage, green onions, and ginger. The wrappers are damn near perfect though, thin and crunchy on the bottom once fried and steamed simultaneously in a lidded pot. Grade: B+ — Sietsema
3 Times pan fried pork dumplings (20 dumplings, $15): I decided to seek out frozen dumplings made by restaurants to see how they compare with supermarket ones. Unfortunately, many of the Chinese dumpling parlors downtown are currently closed. The 3 Times branch at Union Square — which has expanded its dumpling selection since I reviewed it — is open, and offers one type of frozen dumpling for customers who casually drop by stuffed with pork, and others by prior arrangement. These dumplings are doughy and satisfying and meaty without being electrifying. Grade: B — Sietsema
Choripdong kimchi dumplings (1.2 pounds, $3.99): Once steamed, these slender ridged dumplings made in Korea glow pink through their translucent wrappers, and make a pretty sight. Unfortunately, though the fermented cabbage inside offers a slight crunch, the taste of it is totally absent, with no sourness, saltiness, or burn. That said, if in the market for a very plain dumpling to be tossed in soup, these could be fine. The dumplings can also be fried like pot stickers. Grade: C — Sietsema
On cooking and saucing
There are a a couple different ways to cook dumplings. Boiling dumplings is fine, and easier. Bao usually require steaming, as do soup dumplings. If you’re new to steaming dumplings, keep in mind that steam can burn quickly and painfully. Take care to protect your hands and arms while lifting the lid off your steamer.
Also be sure to line the pot: Parchment steamer liners are one option, though a piece of Napa cabbage or a moistened paper towel also works. For the paper, unless the liner directions indicate otherwise, you’ll often be well served to oil the paper to prevent sticking, which would rip and ruin most soupy dumplings. Most dumplings cook in six to eight minutes, though bao can take longer — such as larger char siu baos. Bamboo steamers are available at Asian supermarkets or on Amazon for as little as $17.
For sauces, try mixing soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, grated ginger, sesame oil, and chiles to taste. Many dumplings, however, are well-seasoned on their own. For chile sauces, consider Laoganma, your favorite Sriracha, or any slew of upstarts on the market.
Check out other installments of the Supermarket Series: