This is a review of a restaurant that has no agreed-upon English name. The staff speaks very little English. It’s a restaurant that requires you to wander into the kitchen at the back to help yourself from a fridge of drinks. At the entrance, there’s a large metal bowl of cracked eggs, a bunch of Chinese sausages I originally thought were skinny sweet potatoes and a pot of pale chunks of protein in dark liquid.
This is the restaurant my Jo’burg friend and I call The Chinese Dumpling House. It’s in Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, Johannesburg’s new-ish Chinatown.
The cucumber salad is to die for. The smoked eggplant is pure, vegetarian umami. The leek and egg wontons are variable, but that’s because the wonton pastry is made fresh, by hand. I’ve stood in the kitchen (at the drinks fridge) and watched it being done.
I am a sentimental fool. I first fetched up in The Chinese Dumpling House out of nostalgia for the Yung Chen Noodle Den of Jo’burg’s old Chinatown.
In the early 1990s Yung Chen was part of a thriving strip at the end of Commissioner Street. It was here, in the shadow of the notorious John Vorster Square – now the Johannesburg Central Police Station – that I frequently ordered noodle soup with greens and prawn wontons.
Last year I ordered the same soup at the dumpling house. The greens were less leafy (snipped stalks instead) and the wonton pastry was thinner (and therefore more masterful). But the experience was almost the same: a comforting, slurpy meal with a hint of sweetness (the prawn mixture); light, hydrating nourishment (the broth); freshness (the greens) and substance (the noodles, pastry and wonton filling).
I always add chilli sauce to this soup – for a midday kick – and tea, for added herbiness. I’m greedy like that; greedy for sensation.
My friend had little trouble urging me towards new taste sensations (she’s something of a regular here).
The smoked brinjal was like nothing I’ve eaten before or since. The hit of flavor was almost obscenely intense: thick smoke and dark soy carried by the melting meatiness of slow-cooked flesh. It’s a sexy dish too, with its dark skin and soft, dark centre. The eggplant was most likely soaked in a soy-based sauce after cooking. As a mouthful, it multiplied any of my previous experiences of umami – Parmesan included. The taste was absurdly complex, but the added richness of aroma and texture made it swoon-worthy. It makes perfect sense that dressed eggplant like this is traditionally served atop a bowl of ramen noodles. It is in fact like an Asian version of Parmesan sprinkled over a spaghetti dish.
My friend’s other recommendation was the cucumber and noodle salad. I say noodles, but they’re actually see-through bean threads, also known as saifun. The correct name for a basic Chinese cucumber salad, incidentally, is Sunomono.
This is an elegant salad. The batons of cool cucumber are just the right size – not so little they become a pile of mush and not so big they become watery chunks in the mouth. The dressing – with tastes of soy, lemon and sesame – simultaneously adds depth and high notes. The use of additional ingredients, like coriander leaves, is strictly minimal.
We had warm egg and leek “dumplings” that reminded me of Italian agnolotti, those little stuffed and finger-pinched pastas. They were served dry, with a soy dipping sauce and chopsticks. The stuffing was genius, but the handmade pastry was on the thick side.
We have tried the stuffed and fried “cake”, a speciality of this dumpling house. It was as comforting as a crumpet – and therefore not quite the taste bud-awakening taste we were pursuing.
We also tried a dish recommended by the waitress: a pile of brown noodles topped with a greasy egg omelette. This dish represented one of those unfortunate misunderstandings that is common in “ethnic” restaurants: customers unfamiliar with traditional items on the menu are steered in the direction of take-away style dishes. This plate of noodles, that looked for all the world like a 1970s chop suey, might have been made specially for us.
Next time I might be more brave. Next time I might order from the table at the entrance, the place that attracts locals at lunchtime. Customers point, take their paper bag and get change from R20.
At the door there was that metal bowl of cracked, preserved eggs. These may well have been pidan – the famous “century” or “thousand-year-old egg”. Pidan have dark yolks with circles of blues and greens the shades of bad bruises. The “white” varies in colour from amber to jet. Like the eggplant, these blue-black eggs are sliced and served on noodles or a runny, risotto-type rice dish.
Alongside the large bowl of eggs was the pot of dark liquid supporting straight-edged lumps of firm animal matter. My best guess is that these were the “red stewed pigs knuckles” mentioned on the menu. I doubt I shall ever order them.
I shall almost certainly ask for some of the Chinese sausages, especially as I now know that some people call it “edible nunchucks”. The sausage is dry and lumpy with fat, folded in half in the manner of chorizo. The correct name for this sausage is Lap Cheong and it’s a speciality of the Canton region.
I’m definitely having the seaweed salad when I return, as well as the peanut and celery salad, and the sweet and sour celery salad. These were all on display on the “take-away” table at the entrance. If they are anywhere near as sophisticated as the Sunomono, we’ll have found Joburg’s most foodie salad valley.