How many Chinese dumplings are you meant to eat in a single sitting?
Stephen Haw finds out as he samples some of the most delicious dumplings he's ever tasted at Pron in Linden
A good dumpling is a beautiful thing. It doesn't surprise me that Marco Polo smuggled them from China back to Italy along the old Silk Road. They are, at their best, a kind of gastronomic contraband - so good they ought to be illegal.
I've tried to make my own dumplings, but they've either fallen hopelessly apart or ended in a nameless coagulation, alien to good taste in general. Seeking comfort elsewhere has led me to believe that their finest expressions are to be found at Haiku in Cape Town, Yamato in Illovo and Red Chamber in Hyde Park.
And so, when food editor Hilary Biller invited me to a dumpling tasting at the People's Republic of Noodles (Pron) in Linden, Johannesburg, a restaurant owned by Emma Chen, who also owns Red Chamber, I decided to go AWOL for the afternoon.
I don't know what the collective noun for dumplings is - I've always quite liked "a crush of dumplings"- but, after my experience at Pron, I've come to think that a "demonstration of dumplings" might be more appropriate.
First off, Chen suggests that 30 dumplings per person is a reasonable quantity for a single sitting. And then, mysteriously, as if conjured out of thin air somewhere in the depths of the kitchen, they arrive in little cloud-like formations, wave after wave of them, to burst in a bewildering array of flavours.
Leading the charge are a phalanx of kimchi and pork buns. These have to be defused with some delicacy, as Chen demonstrates, taking the smallest of bites before giving the bun a little squeeze to let the potentially scalding steam escape.
Next up are some traditional pork pot stickers, quickly followed by a few rounds of vegetarian steamed dumplings, and some steamed beef dumplings.
Then come some heavy ordinance in the form of charcoal-infused pork pot stickers (not sure what the idea is here, presumably a simultaneous tox and de-tox in a single mouthful), and then the action heats up further with the arrival of the heavy artillery - the Shao Mai (pork and prawn open-top dumplings), which are followed by more vegetarian
pot stickers and then, finally, bringing up the rear, some rather underwhelming chicken dumplings.
To my shame, the assault was so intense that, 20 dumplings down, I raised the white flag.
Food critics often talk about umami - that elusive fifth taste that is not sweet, salty, sour or bitter. It is difficult to define but there is a consensus, of sorts, that it could mean a kind of "savoury deliciousness".
All the dumplings I tasted fell into that category but, taken together, as a collective, as a conspiracy of dumplings, what they most exhibited was umami's elusive character, the presence of something not quite there, the imminence of a revelation ... just a dumpling away. All I know is that I am going to keep chasing it.
• Visit Pron, the People's Republic of Noodles, at 69 7th Street, Linden, Joburg. Open daily from 12 noon. Call 011-782-1736.