Words by Christina Dean
It’s a scene many Londoners will know well. A tray plops down in front of you, laden with plump spheres roughly the size of golf balls, with deep bronzed bottoms and gently wrinkled beige tops flecked with sesame seeds and chives. You fumble at first but then you have it in the pincer grip of your chopsticks. You’ve been studying the tekkers and keeping your fingers locked tightly, you lean down to the bulging dumpling, intending to nibble away a tiny opening in the skin to let the steam rush out and give you space to suck up the soup. You bite, it bursts, hot broth splatters your t-shirt and burns your mouth, perhaps you swear as you reach for a napkin and glance up to see who else saw your failure. But you blow, you bite again getting the pork filling this time too, and you realise it’s all been worth it.
Dumpling Shack has taken the shengjianbao (aka pan fried soup dumpling) of Shanghai and turned it into a cult London dish, becoming one of the city’s biggest street food success stories in the process. Now it’s restaurant time.
Founder John Li hadn’t expected to be in the food business – his parents had a Chinese takeaway and it wasn’t a life they wanted for him or he wanted for himself – yet after a stint working for a bank in Hong Kong, John came back to London with the desire to start a new hobby. “The street food scene was just kicking off when I came back, with businesses like Pizza Pilgrims and Bleecker, and they inspired me to get involved, “ says John. “ There weren’t any operators selling dumplings so I thought we’d give it a go and see if we could offer something different.” In 2014 he and his wife Yee secured a spot at the School Yard Market in London Fields on Saturdays, initially without their signature shengjianbao on the menu. After some experimentation with the form, he felt confident enough to try selling them, and with a combination of a move to the main section of Broadway Market on market day and hype generated by social media, Dumpling Shack quickly built a loyal fanbase.
That success in Hackney caught the attention of Nuno Mendes, who was curating the kitchen line-up for Old Sptialfields Market and approached them to take a spot. Scaling the business from one to seven days a week and expanding the menu to cater for bigger crowds and longer opening hours – dan dan noodles and prawn wontons joined the soup dumplings – was challenging but that growth allowed John to open the offshoot concept Fen Noodles. “After the lunch rush we used to sell hand-pulled noodles. You need a lot of space to pull the noodles and when it’s busy you don’t have the space or the time, so we had to do it after 2pm, and that started getting really popular,” explains John. “We approached Spitalfields saying this dish is going really well and we’d like to create a business out of it. Initially they offered us the unit next door but it was too small so we took the corner, and there’s a charcoal grill there so they do skewers and hand-pulled noodles.”
As well as expanding with Fen Noodles, Dumpling Shack grew again in 2019 by opening a kitchen at the Collective in South Quay. 2022 will see them come full circle with the opening of their first restaurant in London Fields, just across the road from where they first starting selling dumplings eight years earlier. The restaurant will be split across two levels, housing Dumpling Shack in the basement, where the shengjianbao, wontons, and dan dan noodles we’ve come to know and love will be joined by new dishes like shallot sauce noodles and Hakka style braised beef rice bowls, and Sichuan Fry, the third brand under the Dumpling Shack umbrella that blends bold Sichaun flavours and fried chicken, on the ground floor.
Two separate kitchens had always been John’s vision but delays to the opening caused by supply chain issues and the rising cost of equipment has tripled the cost of the restaurant. “How do we keep with what we want to do but reduce the budget? I’ve figured out a way of restructuring the kitchens, so we’re building it all on the same floor but splitting it in half, which means we don’t have to build the extraction going downstairs,” explains John. “Hopefully that’s the right way of doing it to achieve what we set out to achieve, because it would be really disappointing if I couldn’t put a Dumpling Shack kitchen back in London Fields. That is our proper home, that’s where it all started and it means the world to me to go back to Hackney. It would be really good to serve our customers in that area because they’ve been so loyal to us and we’re busier than pre-pandemic now.”
Sichuan Fry began, as so many new food concepts have, as a lockdown experiment. Though Old Spitalfields Market was shut off, Dumpling Shack stayed open for delivery, resulting in a “really busy hour lunch rush from Deliveroo and then it would quieten down and we’d be twiddling our thumbs, so we just started playing around and testing. We love fried chicken and we started experimenting. The whole concept is based off of Nashville hot chicken but with Chinese Sichuan flavours.” Considering how much Londoners love fried chicken and the fact that not many people have truly nailed hot chicken (Sichuan food certainly doesn’t skimp in the spice department), it’s a genius idea. After a Sichuan Fry pop-up, which resulted in two-hour long queues, John had the confidence to build it into its own brand, and now it’ll take centre stage at the Hackney restaurant.
The team, led by Development Chef Haydon Wong, has turned that initial experiment into a menu of three sandwiches – the Sichuan Classic, spiced with Sichuan peppercorns, chillies & doubanjiang sauce; the Hot and Mala Mapo, with mapo sauce; and the Vegan, with panko aubergine, honey mala sauce, Sichuan sauce & pickled cucumbers – and we’re also being teased with wings and tenders at various spice levels, shake shake fries with a range of seasonings like seaweed powder and salted egg, and Hong Kong milk tea shakes. Oh yes, Dumpling Shack is ready to bring the heat to Hackney.
Local Heroes is a series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, you can see more from our series here.
Old Spitalfields Market, South Quay, and Westgate Street