Friday, December 27, 2013

a mouthful of dumplings

There's a small restaurant in a local-traffic-only street, opposite a university in Beijing that makes delicious dumplings. The restaurant itself is not particularly famous or outstanding, it's a dependable local restaurant serving food to mostly local residents and students, of which I was one such student. I bought a lot of takeaways from this restaurant. I vaguely remember a fried tofu dish with its crispy crunchy skin and its silky smooth tofu innards that was heavenly. But what I will never forget is their jiǎozi (dumplings, 饺子).

In the dead of winter, I got into the habit of ordering two serves of dumplings with two types of fillings for dinner. One serve would be plump and simply-steamed, the other would be steamed then pan-fried on one side rendering the skin crispy delicious. The dumplings would arrive in two oval shaped plates and a pair of cheap bamboo chopsticks. The ritual commenced by separating the chopsticks at its conjoined head and rubbing it against each other to get rid of splinters. I'd scoop one dumpling closer to my mouth and wait for a few seconds for it to somewhat cool, then brazenly pop it into my mouth in its entirety. The dumpling juices, which were previously neatly contained within the dumpling, would explode in my mouth as I tentatively chomp at it into halves. If I wasn't particularly patient the juices would inevitably burn the inside of my mouth. But if I was, I would be rewarded by the combination of the warm savoury juices, the satisfyingly meaty filling and the chewy al-dente skin.

I've had other jiǎozi all over Beijing, which were as good, if not better. But this restaurant was the closest to my dorm. I haven't had any since I left the country. I went through a period of refusing to eat any chinese takeaway, partly because I've had my fill of chinese takeaway, having lived solely on it when I was there. I've gotten over my aversion and is now happily devouring chinese food of all shapes and sizes. Eventhough I am not consciously avoiding it, for some reason I haven't gotten around to having jiǎozi again. Until one winter's night in Montréal when the restaurant closest to our hotel is serendipitously a dumplings only restaurant.

The dumplings in Mai Xiang Yuan instantly reminded me of those I had in Beijing. Maybe because the bitter cold as the clock moved slowly towards midnight was not unlike the bitter cold of Beijing winter. Maybe because the restaurant was cramped and severe, somewhat like a working class restaurant I found everywhere in the back streets of Beijing. Maybe because the server was speaking in another language that I can't quite understand. Maybe because the cooks (all women) were busy kneading, shaping and steaming dumplings while quietly chatting away in yet another language I can't quite understand in the small kitchen visible from the dining room. Maybe it's simply because the dumplings were a meaty broth explosion in the mouth, just what good dumplings should be.

Mai Xiang Yuan on Urbanspoon  
Restaurant Mai Xiang Yuan 麥香園餐館
1084 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
Montréal QUÉBEC
Open Monday-Sunday 11am-9pm
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