Their heads barely reached above the contestants’ tables but these judges were shrewd, tough—they knew what they liked and were firm with their decisions. Seven-year-old Meilin Nelson, for instance, did not like dry foods, which is why she had passed up the dumpling at the second team’s table. “It’s like, sauces are good,” her older sister Samia, 9, explained. “Like pancakes with syrup. They’re much better than pancakes without syrup.”
The four judges— the Nelson sisters and two of their friends, eight-year-olds Mia Nobal and Won-hwi Chun-le—passed from table to table, stabbing dumplings with forks and cradling a can of now-warm soda. They didn’t take notes and they didn’t ask questions—but they didn’t need to. They had “really good” memories, they said, and besides, they were only playing a game. They weren’t the competition’s official judges—there were already three of those—but they were judging the dumplings nevertheless, each one of them determined to choose their favorite dumpling by the end of the night.
Presented by San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop and held at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on Thursday night, the Dumpling Wars was a light-hearted, humor-infused cook-off between six teams intent on creating the best dumplings imaginable. Since taste is subjective, each team had two chances of winning and thus two different groups of voters to appeal to: the audience and a team of three official judges that were pre-selected by the Kearny Street Workshop. (The Nelson sisters’ team was strictly freelance.)
The rules were of the competition were simple: no more than $150 could be spent on ingredients, only four people per team, and only amateur chefs allowed. But the possibilities were endless. You want to make something sweet? Fine. Savory? Sure. French Provencal-inspired? Sounds good. Star Wars themed? Bring it on. As long as it fit the classification of a dumpling, then it was in the running. And the definition of a dumpling, it turns out, is broader than one would think.
“A dumpling is any food that is made with a dumpling wrapper,” Kearny Street Workshop Program Manager Lisa Leong said. San Francisco’s Hard Knox Café chef and owner Tony Hua finessed the definition a bit further. “A dumpling is basically dough that you either fry, bake, or steam and stuff with some kind of meat or vegetable,” said Hua, who was one of the three official judges of the competition.
The beauty of the dumpling is its versatility, he said: almost every culture has their own variation. “When you talk about dumplings, everyone instantly thinks Chinese pot stickers and Shanghai dumplings,” Hua said. But there are so many other foods, he said, that can also be classified as dumplings, such as ravioli, gnocchi, and Japanese gyoza. Heck, even chicken potpies count as dumplings in Hua’s opinion.
As the four unofficial judges journeyed from table to table, the latitude of the competition became increasingly apparent. One team, the San Francisco State Dumpling Masters, crafted a dumpling version of the French fish stew, bouillabaisse. Another team, the Rebel Dumpling Alliance, wrapped up breakfast—bacon, cheese, sweet potato and onion—into tiny, half-crescent dumplings. Of the six teams, only one made dumplings that were vegetarian (the Carb Fairy Dessert Company from San Francisco) and only one made dumplings that were non-savory (again, the Carb Fairy Dessert Company). Their dumpling, which was contained in a chocolate mochi wrapper and drizzled with powdered sugar and raspberry sauce, was what the team called “ an interpretation” of a warm molten chocolate cake.
In addition to the dumpling competition and tastings, there was a buffet with foods donated from local restaurants and well-meaning mothers, as well as a DIY crafts table in the lobby for those who were interested in making small felt dumplings.
The idea for the event, which was a fundraiser for the Kearny Street Workshop, dates back to last year when the organization hosted a series of food and art related workshops in San Francisco. The workshops were so popular that they decided to do another event, Leong said, this time modeling it after popular television cooking show competitions “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef.”
Throughout the night, a steady stream of bodies poured in and out of the back kitchen delivering trays of hot—and in some cases steaming— dumplings to each teams’ table. Audience members walked circles around the room, sampling dumplings and sipping on beverages as they thumbed their yellow voting tickets and mulled over which team they would choose.
The team selected by audience consensus would win a case of 2008 Hogue Genesis chardonnay, chocolates by Joseph Schmidt Chocolatiers, gift certificates for hand and feet massages, and a handmade felt hat made to look like a gigantic Chinese shumai dumpling. The Judges’ Choice winner would also receive chocolates from Joseph Schmidt Chocolatiers and gift certificates for hand and feet massages, as well as $250 in cash and another handmade felt hat, this one made to look like a huge Chinese pot sticker.
While event volunteers counted the votes, the four unofficial judges huddled in a corner to discuss their favorites. Meilin chose the traditional-style pork and shrimp dumplings from the team We Grew Up in San Francisco Chinatown. Won-hwi, with teeth and mouth stained black from chocolate, chose the Carb Fairy Dessert Company, which had made the molten chocolate cake dumplings, and Mia chose East Bay team Sticky Fingers’ ground chicken, goat cheese, arugula, and sun-dried tomato dumplings.
Samia, the eldest of the four, was the last to choose her winner. In fact, while the others were wiping their faces and throwing away their plates, she was still sampling two dumplings. Swallowing a mouthful of chocolate dumpling, she waved her fork in the air and announced, “Now I’m completely changing from chocolate to savory.” But first, a palette cleanser in the form of a long swig of 7-Up straight from the can. “Mmmm,” she said, chewing on the last dumpling, which was stuffed with collard greens and bacon. “It’s good.”
Yet not good enough to become her favorite—like Mia, she chose Team Sticky Fingers’ California Asian fusion styled dumpling as her favorite. “I think it’s good because, you know, how it’s fried, it’s crispy and it tastes really good,” she said.
The winners of the Audience Choice award and Judges’ Choice award were announced an hour later: We Grew Up in San Francisco Chinatown’s traditional dumplings were chosen by the audience and the Carb Fairy Dessert Company’s chocolate dumplings by the judges.
The selection process for the judges, Hua said, involved rating each dumpling on a scale of one to five in four categories: texture, flavor, creativity, and execution. “It’s a pretty tough job being a judge in these events,” he said after casting his vote. “All of the teams had so much heart and soul and you could tell that everyone tried hard to impress.” Which, he added, they did, but in the end, it was the Carb Fairy Dessert Company that stood out the most. He said he knew what his choice was going to be, but didn’t realize the other two judges would agree so readily. “We were debating because—was it that easy?” he said about choosing the winner. Turns out, it was.
Carb Fairy Dessert Company captain Erwin Tam, a 33-year-old investment banker from San Francisco, was elated about winning the Judges’ Choice award. “I was nervous,” he said. “I thought we were stronger with the audience choice because we got so much feedback from them, but from the judges it was minimal.”
In addition to being the only team that made a sweet version of dumpling, Tam thinks that the reason they also won was because they made their own wrappers, which in their case were made of chocolate and mochi. Standing on the stage, smiling proudly underneath his plush pot sticker hat, Tam said that he was “absolutely” happy that his team had won. The cash prize that his team won would be used to take everyone who helped them make dumplings out to dinner, he said. And the hat? “I’m just going to wear it to work tomorrow,” he said.
As for the four unofficial judges, they had other things on their mind. “We were inspired,” Samia said at the end of the night. “We’re going to be in this next year.” Her three cohorts nodded their heads in agreement. Next year, the four of them, in addition to their moms, plan to enter the competition. They have no idea what they’ll cook—it will have meat and be fried, Samia said—but they’ll deal with the specifics later.
Right now they’re focused on choosing their team name and they’re already brimming with ideas. Will they be the Golden Dumplings or Dumpling Delight? Or what about Dumplings Forever or Lucky Dumplings? Best Dumpling, perhaps? Or #1 Dumpling Bar? They’re still making up their minds, but they have a year to decide.