I’ll see your fish finger and raise you a plant-based dumpling
Asian dumplings are being called the new convenience freezer food for nutritious eating in a hurry. Meanwhile, vegetarian and vegan food is getting more of a look-in.
Taipei-born Tina Long says Asian dumplings are the new fish fingers. Tasty convenience when you need something savoury and filling, fast. The Cape Town creator of Home Bao says you can pop dumplings into a boiling pan and they’ll be ready to eat in 10 minutes, straight from your freezer.
In Asian households, dumplings are the go-to freezer food for families and busy professionals trying to eat nutritiously in a hurry. She believes the trend is catching on in South Africa.
Demand for quality plant-based edible alternatives also seems to be increasing. When last did you invite lunch guests, without considering dishes suitable for the vegetarians or vegans in the group?
Sepial Shim recently launched Very V by Sepial, a vegan street food stall as a “vegan extension” at OZCF Market in Cape Town. The Korean chef uses it as her “testing station” for plant-based products.
“We were always serving more than 30% vegan in our Salt Orchard Sepial’s Kitchen restaurant,” she explains. (The restaurant is not operational; Shim wants a dark kitchen with good foot traffic, to supply her three market stall offerings, and double up as a restaurant.)
“I started trading at Vegan Goods Market after my Silwood School of Cookery course, so I had vegan regulars. I think it’s sad not to serve something exciting for your regulars. As a chef, it’s really hard to say no when somebody asks.”
The edible current attraction at Sepial’s Kitchen OZCF Market stall is KFC, a cheeky acronym for Korean Fried Chicken. “My adult son says it’s a cheesy name,” Shim laughs with a glint in her eye. Next came vegetarian KFC: Korean Fried Cauliflower. Equally delicious, it looks and even tastes similar, vegan cauliflower florets replacing chicken pieces in a light rice flour batter.
Dusted with sesame seeds, the KFCs are cloaked in a tangy, mildly spicy, fermented Gochujang Korean chilli paste-dominated sauce with garlic, served with pickled daikon cubes. Shim lets slip that as a classically trained chef she’d like to mix it up and serve non-Asian signatures. Her regulars will hear none of it.
But back to those dumplings … ‘Tasty bites of happiness’ is the tagline on the Home Bao box. And they really are. I was intrigued that Long had the idea to produce dumplings for South African customers, after struggling to feed her children aged two and four, during a care visit to her father in Taipei. He was battling advanced lung cancer. Struggling to eat in Asia?
“Yes, we were eating a lot of street food in Taipei, on a regular basis. It was delicious but not very healthy.” She started buying boxes of frozen dumplings instead. “People asked me: why not just get the cooked fresh dumplings off the street? I said the frozen dumplings were a lot more convenient with young kids. In 10 minutes, dinner is ready.”
Long trained as a dietician, she also has a Masters in nutrition, but worked in an unrelated field, before starting Home Bao in March 2019. “I always wanted to be in the food industry. But Asian parents will never allow you to complete your life without a degree. In my family, everybody has a Masters, so a degree wasn’t good enough,” she shrugs. Ironically, her father’s death spurred her plan to go it alone. Armed with a Kenwood mixer in her Rondebosch garage, Long launched an online business.
“Instead of a bag of fish fingers, we have dumplings. That’s what my children are growing up on. I prefer a dumpling with 50% carbs, with the other 50% protein, vegetables and just a little fat. It’s macronutrient balanced. That for me – when I was in Taiwan, looking after my dad, with two young kids – was a lightbulb moment. It’s nutritious, there is convenience and very little wastage.”
Dumplings suit young professionals and singles too. “It’s a great emergency freezer food because you don’t need to defrost. The beauty of it is you buy a box of 30. But tonight your partner is out and you only want 10, so it’s convenient.”
‘Testing the theory’ time. I was sent home with various boxes of Home Bao dumplings to try. Admittedly my 10-year-old son already likes restaurant dim sum. But I’ve been surprised at how excited he was about having a batch in our freezer, insisting on popping dumplings into a pan of simmering water as an afternoon snack, after cricket and tennis respectively, for two days running. On the third evening, we had fun boiling and pan frying assorted dumplings for supper, with stir-fried veggies on the side. A supreme success.
Long’s dumplings have homemade pastry casings and fillings. There is no MSG or preservatives. So, for extra umami, take her advice and add a drop of sesame oil to each cooked dumpling. Then (my suggestion): buy a bottle of chinkiang black vinegar from her shop, for a go-to acidic soy-based dipping sauce kick, mixed with the Home Bao frozen herb flavour packet in each box.
“Dipping sauce is very important,” urges Long. “Whether you’re buying a box of frozen spring rolls, we include a sauce. And if you’re buying frozen dumplings, there’s a sachet of homemade flavour pack, from herbs. It’s our signature, where we differentiate from others.” Soya sauce or Thai fish sauce are dipping alternatives.
Home Bao dumplings can be steamed, but for ease, Long recommends boiling (it’s faster). The potsticker variants are pan-fried, plus water (instructions provided). Each box is colour-coded: yellow carrot puree dumplings have prawn fillings, green spinach puree have vegan contents, red beetroot casings surround beef potstickers.
My family particularly enjoyed the meatier simmered dumplings: the most distinctive flavours were coriander chicken (free-range chicken, water chestnut and ginger, in a plain flour casing), or original potstickers (pork, cabbage and spring onion in a plain flour casing). The posh prawn (spring onion, prawn and water chestnut in a carrot puree casing) and beef sizzler (beef and cheese in a red beetroot casing) were nicely savoury. Potstickers were tasty, just more hassle to prepare.
Fillings such as coriander chicken and original pork have a meaty bone broth, forming a jelly that melts inside cooked dumplings to make them “juicy”.
Juicy vegans and more
But what of Home Bao’s plant-based flavours? The Juicy Vegan (smoked tofu, daikon, shiitake mushrooms and courgette) and Beyond Vegan (a supplier’s flavoursome pea-protein filling, plus Sichuan pepper oil), both made tasty alternatives. But as might be suspected with children, dumplings with green spinach casings were not an easy sell with my son visually!
Long says her vegan dumplings were inspired by the trend to go plant-based in Taiwan, offering a healthier, convenient option without sacrificing taste. She saw plant-based dumplings with a texture of “meat” were well received in a popular dumpling chain.
“My mom is vegetarian, so it was a combination of that, plus my dietician background. When you eat various legumes or alternative protein sources, you have to make sure you aren’t nutritionally deficient. So in one dumpling I wanted to cover all the essential amino acids,” she explains.
Most vegans opt for vegetable-based Home Bao Juicy Vegan potstickers and dumplings. The Home Bao Beyond Dumpling caters to those keen to try plant-based for health, but still craving a taste of meat.
But are more South Africans looking for these alternatives? Definitely. “I saw demand for our vegan range increase since we launched,” says Long, referring to her plant-based dumplings and potstickers, vegan spring rolls and baos. “Vegan probably carries 40% of our business,” she confirms. “The way people shopped this year has definitely changed.” The Granadilla Eats app stocks only Home Bao vegan dumplings.
She references how Covid-19 has given frozen food a boom. “Speak to any Spar or Pick n Pay manager – the frozen food really moves now. Before Covid, we were only delivering frozen dumplings to peoples’ homes.”
Who doesn’t love a dumpling?
Shim agrees that savoury Asian dumplings have broad appeal. She points out that many countries have savoury wrapped food as snacks – Argentina has empanadas, South Africa has pastry pies. She isn’t convinced we are switching to plant-based eating in a big way. Yet.
Shim recently launched The Ugly Dumpling bar at the V&A Food Market, primarily serving bao and dumplings. She monitors plant-based demand at her OZCF Market stalls where “everybody is conscious about ingredients and dietary requirements and interested in food”. Says Shim: “If you are doing only a plant-based restaurant, it’s hard to survive. So at OZCF Market we’re serving vegan and non-vegan. In that way we introduce plant-based to a non-vegan, so maybe we can convert some people or do a meatless Monday kind of thing.”
Shim is not vegan, instead just “curious” about food preferences as a chef. “Whenever I see a vegan menu, I notice two things: the first is lots of additives, for texture or flavour to make it similar tasting to an animal product. The second one is: it’s sometimes about too many raw vegetables. The human stomach is not designed to eat only raw vegetables – or maybe just mine isn’t, I prefer cooked food with some greens.”
Ah, but then she cleverly creates a tomatuna poke bowl. At the Very V by Sepial OZCF Market stall, I thought I was eating tuna sushi slivers on rice. Wow. Umami elements dominated, combined with pickled purple daikon radish, fried tofu, vinegar-laced sushi rice, creamy hits of wasabi vegan mayo, perky edamame. Psychedelic seaweed in sugar vinegar dressing, mushroom marinated in Korean bulgogi BBQ sauce… It came together in an umami crescendo of soft textures and fresh crunch. Turns out I ate dehydrated tomato; natural umami elements made saltier and darker in colour.
Says Shim: “We tried every reddish vegetable to find the closest to sashimi in terms of texture and flavour… red bell pepper, tomato… To enhance the textures, we dehydrate a little, boil a little, maybe grill a little. This is one final product.” Bravo.
She is visibly happy that I’ve enjoyed it, and charmingly quirky. “My son hates this tomatuna name too. Too cheesy!” Shim moved from Seoul to South Africa at the age of 30, and soon decided to study at Silwood. She’s serious about this food business. “We try new menus every month at the market and see if it’s well received or not. I need to know what people really want.”
Shim notes differing reasons for the switch to veganism. “Some people think it’s fashionable; some think it’s the new glamorous; some think it’s healthier; some more ethical. I think any reason is great. Climate change and farmed animal issues, those are big, so there are more people looking for plant-based options.”
As a chef, she will develop more delicious plant-based offerings if demand is there. “I believe more and more people can enjoy delicious plant-based food. It’s not cheaper, because you need to buy more vegetables every day to meet your nutrients, so it’s harder sometimes. And spend time to prepare, so if you live a busy life you can’t do it.”
Taiwanese-born Long also has an unconventional story about coming to food. She lived jointly in Cape Town and Taipei, after being sent to stay with a South African family to get an education. “My dad was a vice-president of a bank. Growing up, my mom had time to visit more often.” Turns out, mom was a terrible cook, but Long’s father always brought their family together through food. “My grandfather had five wives, and my father always managed to unite the family. Good food is the centre of a good Asian family union. It’s how they express love.”
Fittingly, Long is now honouring her late father with the dumpling and bao business. Does she see local demand for plant-based foods continuing to grow with her expansion? Yes. “We see it in our sales figures already. It’s huge, and the way forward.” DM/TGIFood
Home Bao, dumpling retail store in Salt Orchard, Cape Town. Dumplings also available at some Cape Spars. Johannesburg dumpling deliveries via Wündercook. Contact 072 610 6929
Sepial’s Kitchen and Very V by Sepial, OZCF Market, Cape Town, weekends.
The Ugly Dumpling, V&A Food Market, Cape Town. Contact 061 715 9371
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved