In her continuing search for great street food in Dublin, FOOD AND WINE contributor Mei Chin reveals two, perhaps unexpected, spots in the capital for exactly that.
I have finally found my Dublin dumpling Nirvana, and it’s at the Daybreak Deli in Temple Bar. The dumpling wrappers are the springy, flour and water pastry from Northern China, handmade and hand-rolled, Although there is a variety of fillings – including a vegan one of mushroom and sweet potato noodles, all of them decent, I will, from now on, always be eating the filling that first enticed me, pork, shrimp, egg and Chinese chive. These pillows burst with juice, grassy from the chives, briny from the shrimp, silky with egg, laced with white pepper and sesame oil. Sometimes I like them guo-tie, or browned with a bit of oil. Other times, I liked them just boiled, to properly enjoy the texture of the pastry.
Just like fresh pasta, with dumplings, handmade does not necessarily mean good. For instance, the dumplings in the lunchtime market at Merrion Square are leathery and greasy. Usually, I go to the freezer section for a €5 bag of Fresh Asia, which are decent examples of the hearty northern variety, or an equally priced bag of Ajinomoto if I am craving something more delicate. (Many reputable restaurants use Ajinomoto. For example, Lucky Tortoise, which openly admits that they use Ajinomoto vegetable. If it has a silky wrapper, pretty pleats, and a richly flavoured but smooth-textured filling, chances are it is Ajinomoto.)
The first time I ordered my Daybreak dumplings it was eleven PM, and I was chatting with the lovely lady from Shenyang (in Northern China, where my grandmother was from) cheerfully panfrying. There are two other customers, both of them Irish, merrily wobbly from a night out. “Irish drunk people are so nice,” she says to me in Chinese, shooting us all a smile. The afternoons boast another crowd of regulars, like a guy who works with CityLink. Although the Daybreak Chinese dumpling counter is scrupulously clean, they have not yet gotten rid of the sign on the wall that says, “All Sandwiches Made Freshly To Order.”
Daybreak is not the only convenience store in Dublin with tasty Chinese eats. Three years ago, I stumbled upon Temple Express Newsagents just around the corner from dumpling Daybreak deli, sold magazines, sodas, Aircoach tickets, jianbing (Chinese crepes) and roujiamo (braised meat in buns) and braised eggs, meat, and green beans.
It’s not surprising, if you think about Asian 7-Elevens. In America, the 7-Eleven is a round-the-clock chain that is a purveyor of Slurpees, cigarettes, potato chips, and gasoline, satirised in the Simpsons by the Kwik-E Mart. In Asian countries, the 7-Eleven is a food mecca. The tightly contained aisles (still open 24-7) hawks bento boxes, exotic ice-creams, braised pork rice, and fresh soba. My favourite thing at the Taiwan 7-Eleven is the counter of oden, or Japanese stew. A fragrant bonito dashi broth simmers, which you garnish with daikon, pillowy fried tofu, and fish cakes.
The other week, I wrote about Dublin’s “street food” and how it is still has a ways to go. Back in the day, Temple Express was one place that had the rag-tag street food spirit, rice cookers on a bookshelf, dusty magazines in the front. It produced jianbing, pancakes folded over scrambled eggs and braised meat made on a portable crepe maker. A pot of “lu” was in the corner, where meat, boiled eggs and vegetables steeped in a star-anise spiked broth. Temple Express has since changed names and its look, first as Steam, then as Asahi, and is now Oh My Street Food. Gone are the magazines and the candy bars. The kitchen is immaculate, and they make tapioca bubble teas. The clientele is still, as it was before, hip, young Chinese students.
I ask the girl at Oh My whether their dumplings are made fresh. She laughs and says, “Absolutely not.” The best street food vendors do only one or two things perfectly. At Oh My, it is their “lu” or braised beef, pork, and eggs. It’s folded into the jianbing, but their best dish, the girl informs me, is lu fen, pork belly, hot sauce, eggs, and peanuts over rice noodles. The lu dan are hard boiled eggs that have sat in that spiced, soy broth until they are caramel coloured, more addictive than candy. I miss their lu dou, green beans that they used to stew in that lu sauce; if I could just have a bowl of the green beans and two eggs, I would be regally satisfied. However, they are gone from the menu. Most Chinese who live here are convinced that the Irish are not crazy about vegetables.
To dine in authentic street food fashion, go to Oh My for their lu fen and lu dan, then around the corner to Daybreak for their dumplings. Although Daybreak has a hot counter of chicken wings and sweet and sour beef, for their non-Chinese clientele likes options, Daybreak is proud of their dumplings, and justly so, for these labour-intensive parcels are made by hand every morning. Be prepared to wait at least fifteen minutes for Daybreak dumplings because these beauties are browned to order. Even though this is a convenience store, it is not fast food.
There is a lovely Korean phrase, son-mat, which means “the taste of hands.” Son-mat is what makes a dish taste delicious, seasoned by the hands that have made it. Squid ink noodles kneaded in Sardinia – son mat. kimchi from someone’s grandmother, son mat. As you wait for your dumplings to be lovingly crisped, you chat with the person making your food and everyone else in the queue. Then, when your dumplings are finally ready, they will be succulent, but also flavoured with some of the true Asian street food spirit, which is just as much about the banter as the food itself, and suffused with that elusive son-mat seasoning.
Daybreak Deli, 1 Aston Quay, Dublin 2.
Oh My Street Food, 4 Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2.
Ajinomoto available at Asia Market.
Author: Mei Chin
Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach, New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis. Follow Mei on Twitter and Instagram.