• Dumpling master John Sun's noodle-stretching technique has been used in China for millennia. (Jonathan Ford, Instagram)Source: Jonathan Ford, Instagram
The decade-old Haymarket institution brings its cult dumplings and noodles, plus plastic grapes to Newtown.
Jonathan Ford

14 Aug 2017 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2017 - 4:34 PM

It’s a new season for husband-and-wife restaurateurs Susanna Chen and John Sun. They've leased Haymarket’s Chinese Noodle Restaurant to a trusted acquaintance and set their sights on the Inner West.

Chinese Dumpling Master highlights Xinjiang’s unique cuisine. For those not up-to-scratch with Chinese geography, Xinjiang is a sparsely-populated province in the far north-west of China, bordering Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The provincial capital, Ürümqi (pronounced 'oor-OOM-chi'), is Sun's home city and one of the most remote yet ethnically diverse cities in Asia.

So what is Northern Chinese cuisine?

“Much of the cuisine focuses on wheat,” says Chen. "It’s Northern China's main staple and it’s often used more than rice." 

All dumplings, noodles and pancakes are handmade Xinjiang-style.

There's a lot of creativity on the veggie front, too – eggplant, shallots, tomato, cabbage and onion are easily grown in this part of China.

Sun is the 'dumpling master’, an expert in the process of noodle-stretching. This involves repeatedly pulling dough into long, thick strands before looping them between his hands (like coiling an electrical cable). He then takes the bundle and slams it onto the bench. It's artisan and theatrical. “Everything here is fresh,” Chen emphasises, “and these noodles can’t be stored for later, otherwise they’ll become inedible.”

Sample the noodles by ordering 'Noodle with Fragrant Spicy Sauce’. That’s not a grammatical error - there is only one very, very long noodle in this huge meal. “It symbolises a long life,” Chen says.

The braised eggplant is great for vegans – the process uses minimal vegetable oil and a splash of water, accentuating the eggplant’s subtle flavour and giving it a crisp, outer layer. “When you braise eggplant, there shouldn’t be much trace of oil left on the plate when you serve it. If there is, it’s too oily,” Chen explains.

Eggplant plays a huge part in Northern Chinese cuisine.

Other classic Xinjiang dishes include the pork and chive dumplings, chilli wontons, shallot pancakes and basically anything stir-fried.

“Sometimes, the wait is a little bit longer for the food, because everything is handmade,” says Sun.

Customers will quickly notice rows of meticulously arranged plastic grapevines draped from the roof. The faux fruit is more than just ceiling cover; it's a throwback to Chinese Noodle Restaurant, often nicknamed 'the place with the grapes’.

The decorations also symbolise Sun’s cultural origins. Xinjiang is semi-arid and dried fruits are easy to produce here. Locals allow vines to grow onto the roof of their patio, which along with the province’s dry climate, helps the fruit-drying process. As a result, the act of eating underneath crawling vines and hanging grapes is a Northern Chinese pastime, and Dumpling Master uses this to surprise passers-by who are familiar with this. 

Grapevines symbolise the Dumpling House’s Northern Chinese roots.

Chen and Sun have built the business from the ground and are riding the waves of success but a decade ago, things weren’t so easy. Chen was running Chinese Noodle Restaurant when her oldest child was 10 months old and she was pregnant with her second. "My parents lived in China so they couldn’t help with the kids. The pram was parked in front of the restaurant every day," she says.

But now they’re brimming with word-of-mouth customers, and Sun knows why. “If you work hard enough, relate well with the customers and keep the quality consistent, you can run a successful restaurant in Sydney.”

Chinese Dumpling Master opens Tuesday-Friday at 11.30am–3pm and 5–9.30pm, and Sat-Sun at 11.30am–9.30pm. Shop 2/71 Enmore Rd, Newtown NSW 2042. Licensed for BYO.

Love the story? Follow the author on Instagram @jono_ford.

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