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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Chopsticks in Chinatown, Part I: Dragon Star, Haymarket

EDIT January 18, 2009: Dragon Star has closed and re-opened as China Grand.

After relishing every minute of our action-packed spice tour hosted by Saffron, it seemed only fair that Pinkcocoa and I reciprocate the exchange of foodie fun with our very own shop-fest around Sydney's Chinatown.

Of course a responsible foodblogger should never photograph on an empty stomach, so we headed straight for arguably the busiest yumcha joint in town, Dragon Star.

Dragon Star sits on the top floor of factory outlet heaven, Market City. Mirroring the hubbub of Paddy's Markets in the basement below, Dragon Star is similarly filled with people, food and plenty of pointing fingers too.

We arrive at 10.30am on a Sunday--essential earlybird preparedness if you want to walk straight in to a table. Indulge in a lazyhead weekend lie-in, and you'll be punished with a flimsy raffle ticket stub as you're forced to endure a 90-minute lottery from the yumcha bouncers.

But we are early and are afforded the luxury of a table immediately. Even at 10.30, the restaurant is already 90% full with an accompanying chopstick-clanging din of 250 diners.

Shin Chan (bluecocoa?) takes charge of the tea ordering (chrysanthemum please) and already we're on the lookout for the nearest trolley of goodness. Forget this menu business. Bring the food to me cooked and ready and I will personally inspect and choose what I'd like to eat!

Ngao zap (combination beef tripe)

Tripe struggles to gain mass public acceptance, but I am pleased to see that our table of four happily tucks into this dish with gusto. Pinkcocoa makes a valiant attempt to identify all the chunky bits--"I think that's intestine"--but the textures are all fascinating and the taste is delightful.

The whole combination of beef shin and assorted innards is simmered hot-pot style in a sweet salty sauce with slices of white radish.

Gow choi gao (garlic chive dumpling)

The chive dumplings are one of my must-have favourites, the rice flour pillows usually chock-filled with fat-cut squares of flat garlic chives. Today, however, there is barely a sprinkle of chive to be found amongst the bed-hogging prawns.

Maybe they ran out of chives, we ponder. There also isn't much in the way of crunchy waterchestnut either. And garlic chive dumplings should be almost green with goodness, much like these ones.

Fung jao (Phoenix claws, or chicken feet)

But no matter, there are more exciting things to cover... like Saffron's first encounter with chicken feet. Suffering from a similar social stigma as tripe, the consumption of chicken feet is often used as the litmus test of yum cha edginess. If the spling lull is the epitomy of the gwei lo (white man) consumer, then the consumpation of chicken feet is right down the other.

Saffron is fascinated though, and Shin and I provide a quick debrief on how best to attack one: Bite off small fragments at a time and then chew and suck as much skin and tendon off as you can. Dispense the bone discreetly onto your plate and then start again.

Good chicken feet should be salty with plenty of black bean and spiced with garlic and the heat of fresh chilli. And for those who still baulk, the outer skin is removed from the feet before they are deep-fried and then braised in soy sauce, black bean, garlic and chilli. Eating chicken feet is about the spicy flavours and the juicy texture. And as I point out to Saffron, they take time to eat but they are worth every minute.

These chicken feet are a little pale for my liking and lacking in both saltiness and heat.

The bamboo baskets whizz past us, some of the women barrelling past us without a word.

"She went straight past us!" Pinkcocoa cries in disappointment.

"Wrong lane", Shin Chan shrugs. "It's a two-way street I'm sure and there were probably double-lines she couldn't cross."

Gow choi gao (fried)

I've never had these before, usually dismissing these fried parcels as gwei lo food. However these are surprisingly good, with my favourite gow choi mixture wrapped in wonton sheets and then deep-fried to a golden green hue.

Pai gwut (pork ribs)

These are another family fave. I've yum cha'd with two people in particular and between the three of us, we will scoff two entire dishes. With flavours similar to chicken feet, again I was a little disappointed with the lack of black bean and chilli in this dish.

Ham soi gok (combination dumpling)

If I could only order one dish at yum cha, it would be this one. For the other dishes you could probably replicate at home (I've made gow choi gao, har gao and pai gwut in the kitchen with relative success) but these deep-fried balls of joy are something I've yet to attempt.

Almost hollow but for a teaspoon of stir-fried pork mince mixture, the first bite into these dumplings is always heaven. Teeth made contact with hard crispy surface, pierce the deep-fried shell and then meet slight resistance with the tacky starchy mildly sweet interior. Bliss, I tell ya!

Saffron proves her fine judgement by becoming an instant convert.

"Can I buy these outside of yum cha?" she asks me. "Can you get them frozen?"
Er, not not really.
"Can you get them at cake shops?"
Yes, but they go soft and soggy.
"Can you refresh them somehow, like heating or frying them again?"
Er, no, probably not.

But I'm so pleased she, too, has fallen in love with them and seems a besotted as I.

And, like walking around your hometown with a tourist, Saffron notices and delights in all the things that Pinkcocoa and I take for granted:

"Oh my goodness, is she frying stuff in that?" Saffron asks with amazement. "How cool! Talk about freshly made. And that trolley. I love that shape. It's like... like a chariot. A yum cha chariot!"

It is only now that I wonder how hyperactive and exciteable Pinkcocoa and I must have appeared at Janani, as we arm-waved, shrieked and grinned at everything in sight.

But I love being reminded again about all the cool things at yum cha.

Rice noodle roll with chicken and prawn

This is another new dish for me. A little similar to cheung fun (longlife noodle usually filled with prawns, char siu or beef), these rice noodle cigars contain a steamed bundle of chicken mince, prawn, spring onion and water chestnuts.

Dan jin lo mai fan (Egg-fried glutinous rice)

This is another new dish that even Pinkcocoa and Shin Chan have never heard of. After some conversation with the waitress, Pinkcocoa nods her approval and the dish is ceremoniously lowered onto our table.

As Pinkcocoa carefully dissects hers with chopsticks for a mandatory cross-section photo, we attack ours with curious poking and tentative thoughtful bites.

Essentially it's just mounds of sticky rice wrapped in omelette and shallow-fried again. The rice is sticky but a little on the dry side, I think, and the starchy chewiness sends our stomachs on a dizzying GI-high.

The yum cha benchmark, of course, lies inherently in the quality of the har gao.

No yum cha experience can be complete without har gao and it's a theme everyone else carries, as we cannot spot any har gow coming our way for a good 90 minutes. We badger every waiter who walks past, we pester the trolley-pushers, we crane our necks and strain our ears for that magical cry of "har gao".

Finally, they arrive.

Har gao (steamed prawn dumpling)

Good har gao has a thin rice paper skin and is packed with whole prawns (not prawn mince) and a healthy sprinkling of crunchy water chestnuts. These are ok, but not as good as I remembered. The prawns, at least, are reassuringly whole.

But now that har gao has been consumed, we can safely move onto the best part, Dessert.

Guai ling go (herbal jelly with honey syrup)

It's a day of firsts as Saffron's intrigue by the shiny opaqueness of this dish grants entry to our table. I've had plenty of grass jelly before, but not this type of jelly which apparently contains shavings of turtle shell.

Me: "So what's the difference between this jelly and grass jelly?"
Pinkcocoa: "Well this one contains herbs and is quite bitter. On the other hand, grass jelly has herbs in it."
Shin Chan starts laughing as Pinkcocoa looks flustered.
Pinkcocoa: "I mean, they contain different herbs. They both have herbs. But different ones."

Still more than I know about it!

Saffron isn't too impressed with the bitterness of this jelly, but having been acclimatised to grass jelly (which, incidentally, tastes divine with a scoop of Blue Ribbon ice cream), I quite enjoy the slippery tea-i-ness of it. The jelly is quite refreshing and its mild bitterness is offset by the honey syrup.

Bak tong say yong (white sugar Chinese donut)

Saffron's ears prick up when she hears the word doughnut as Pinkcocoa translates some of the dessert trolley offerings.

Chinese donuts are more like choux buns although a little eggier and dusted with icing sugar. Puffy and moist inside, I find these a little too eggy and wet for my liking, although Saffron, resident donut expert, seems to give these the thumbs up.

Daan tart (egg custard tart)

Daan tart are the final climax for any yum cha. When Saffron asks me in what order she should eat the desserts, I suggest she save the daan tart for last because "they're so rich and lardy you'll want to lie down and have a nap as soon as you finish the last mouthful."

Of course, when I spy Pinkcocoa holding her chopsticks aloft as she begins to consume her tart, I must stop and ask her "what are you doing?"

"I always eat the custard first, and then I eat the pastry", she explains.

So of course I have to take a photo of this strange phenomenon.

Not that I am ever one to take the high road when it comes to consumption quirks. I have an obsession with eating wafers layer by layer; I peel off steamed Vietnamese coconut puddings one layer at a time; and I must must must butter my raisin toast within 3 seconds of it ejecting from the toaster... but dang, I ain't never seen noone eat a custard tart like dat before! =)

The daan tart snap gives proof that the custard is firm-set and a golden yellow throughout. An inescapable lustrous sheen indicates its richness and the pastry is a fluffy flaky accordion of joy.

There are more goodies on the yum cha dessert trolley but the stomach can only hold so much. The mango pudding is often tasty (although probably best eaten in summer when fresh mangos are in season) and the coconut jelly (yeh jup goh) are fluffy clouds best appreciated by sucking through your teeth (as wisely advised by Veruca Salt).

But after three hours (OMG! Is it really 1.30pm?!?) it is time to vacate our table and put an end to the puzzling freakshow of three females compulsively photographing every dish and waiter/waitress in sight. As one person twisted in their chair to photograph an action shot, or a restaurant layout, they would inevitably turn back to face two more cameras poised, finger at the ready, to depress the shutter on a shot just taken. One person would make a passing comment about "what a great shot that would make", and all of a sudden, three cameras were whipped out, laughter would erupt and Shin Chan would just smile and shake his head with resign.

The hungry crowds at 1.30pm

As we exited the restaurant, the hordes of people queuing gave cause for us to gloat a little inside at our own early-bird preparedness and smugly pat our satisfied stomachs (or was that just me?).

And despite an urge to lie down for a post-yum cha nap, we charged forth onto the streets of Chinatown, for next stop was dim sum fun...

Dragon Star Seafood Restaurant (CLOSED)
This restaurant has re-opened as China Grand
Market City Level 3, Shop 9-13, Hay Street Haymarket
Tel: +61 (02) 9211 8988

More mouthfuls from our Chinatown banquet:
Chopsticks in Chinatown Part II: Dim sum fun
Chopsticks in Chinatown Part III: Lucky Thai sweets, Haymarket
Chopsticks in Chinatown Part IV: Thai Kee supermarket, Haymarket
Chopsticks in Chinatown Part IV: Thai Kee supermarket, Haymarket

Related GrabYourFork posts:
Yum Cha -- China Grand, Haymarket
Yum Cha -- East Ocean, Haymarket (Oct 08)
, (Aug 06), (Aug 05) and (Oct 04)
Yum Cha --Hung Cheung, Marrickville
Yum Cha -- Palace Chinese, Sydney CBD
Yum Cha -- Regal Restaurant, Sydney CBD
Yum Cha -- Zilver, Haymarket (Jan 07) and (Feb 06)
11 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Anonymous on 7/17/2005 04:00:00 pm


  • At 7/17/2005 7:24 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    mmm yumcha! hope u tried the cream puffs in chinatown!

  • At 7/17/2005 8:04 pm, Blogger Reid said…

    Hi AG,

    Thanks for posting this and making me hungry for some dim sum at midnight! *sigh*

    My favorite is the chicken feet. Too bad you didn't enjoy them here. I know exactly what you mean though about the flavor.

  • At 7/17/2005 9:38 pm, Blogger eat stuff said…

    This looks so good!
    But I dont think har gow are wrapped in thin rice paper, is not it a dough made from tapioca and rice flour mixed with hot water?

  • At 7/18/2005 3:48 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dragon Star Seafood Restaurant is my favourite dim sum place in Sydney!!! After reading this post I am so tempted to revisit this year.

  • At 7/18/2005 9:20 am, Blogger deborah said…

    Yay another post to add to the mix! Great wrap up AG, and with quotes too! As I was reading I was thinking; 'now did I really say that' LOL. Good memory

    I look forward to hearing more about your perspective of the day

  • At 7/18/2005 9:55 am, Blogger Veruca Salt said…

    Yum! Just what I needed to start the day off with. Fantastic photos.

    The selection of goodies has been expanded. Grass Jelly? I never would have thought.

  • At 7/18/2005 11:26 am, Blogger Kelly said…

    Ooh yum! Great post, AG! I love Dragon Star - it is the first place that RJ and I tried mango pudding, so I always remember it VERY fondly. Too bad it is 1000km away ;)

  • At 7/18/2005 6:31 pm, Blogger Joycelyn said…

    hiya, your post and gorgeous pictures make me wanna rush out for some dim sum pronto! i lurrve custard tarts - and good ones are really difficult to come by...the ones you had look just about perfect...cheers,j

  • At 7/19/2005 1:22 am, Blogger eat stuff said…

    I had no idea you could get it in the chiller section.. I am sooo excited now! but it is very easy to make you just need asbestos fingers ;)

  • At 9/03/2007 10:57 pm, Blogger An said…

    Dragon Star is temporarily closed for renovation!

  • At 9/04/2007 12:32 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi ~an* - I had no idea. Thanks for letting me know :)


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