You may ask why an advocate of homemade Asian dumplings would get near frozen dumplings. The reality is that Asian grocery stores carry tons of frozen dumplings, and one of the best ways to explore the world of Asian dumplings is to eat frozen ones. They’re among Asia’s convenience processed food, like instant ramen noodles. With frozen dumplings, you get to try different flavors, doughs, and check out various shapes. You also see and appreciate homemade ones in a different light too. But let’s be clear – comparing store bought, frozen dumplings with homemade ones prepared from scratch is like comparing apples and oranges. They’re not in the same class. However, to understand the world of Asian dumplings, you’ve got to eat lots of them from varying sources!
Over the years, I’ve purchased plenty of frozen dumplings from Chinese markets but it had been a while since I’d tried any from mainstream food stores. A few weeks ago, while at Costco, I observed two average American shoppers buying a huge bag of frozen Ling Ling (Panda brand) pot stickers, along with Otter Pops popsicles and mini bundt cakes. Then at Trader Joe’s last week, I noticed that about 4 feet of the frozen food case contained various frozen Asian dumplings.
The Thai Gyoza got me the most. What were those? Gyoza are the Japanese version of Chinese jiaozi dumplings. The Thais have their own dumplings but treading on East Asian dumpling turf wasn’t not the norm for Thai cooks. What made the dumplings Thai, Japanese, or Chinese? What were they? So not only did I scoop up bags of Trader Joe’s Thai gyoza dumplings, but also shu mai, samosas, and mini wontons. My husband and I sampled all of them yesterday and here are our thoughts:
Vegetable Samosas: Following the directions, we baked these small triangles in the oven at 350F for 10 minutes, turning them midway with the expectation that they’d be evenly crisp. Sadly they were not close to being shatteringly crisp like ones we’ve made at home. The wrapper was downright odd – chewy, hard, and vaguely unpleasant. The potato and pea filling was lackluster and mushy. There was no spicing or flavor reminiscent of Indian food. These looked more like Burmese samosas that are traditionally wrapped in Chinese spring roll skins, though the Trader Joe’s skin was much thicker. This dumpling did not have a specific cuisine attached to it so it's hard to know what Trader Joe's had in mind.
Chicken Shu Mai: Unlike the packaging photo that made these open-faced dumplings looked fried and nicely browned, the shu mai looked cadaverously unappetizing. They were small thumb-size nuggets in a plastic bag and pieces of the skin had chipped off during shipping. The surprise was some dipping sauce that was oddly tart and not much else. What was the purpose of the sauce? So I tossed it and made my own with soy sauce and rice vinegar.
You can microwave the Trader Joe’s shu mai but I steamed mine instead (see second row of dumpling in photo above). Though still weird looking after being reheated, the shu mai were actually okay. The filling was texturally smooth and firm (like traditional shu mai/shao mai filling) with diced carrot inside. I wouldn’t go running back for more but unlike most frozen Asian dumplings, these (like all Trader Joe’s dumplings we sampled) contained no MSG.
Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons: The photo on the box has the wontons pan-fried with some brown coloring but I love my wontons poached, in broth, or deep-fried. I used the boiling pot of water from steaming the shu mai to cook these wontons. right from the package, some of the mini wontons were clumped together, but they eventually came apart during the cooking process. Just gently stir during poaching. The little pleated dumplings were cute as a bug’s ear and had a charming handmade look. The skins cooked up to a nice silkiness.
After poaching, I sampled some on their own and the texture was nice but the filling of chicken and cellophane noodles was nondescript. We tasted no cilantro. So I reached for some soy sauce, homemade chile oil, and sesame oil and tossed the wontons in that mixture to adding zip. The result was much more palatable. (7/2/09 udate: I found that you can combine these wontons with another Trader Joe's product -- Chinese-style barbecue pork -- for a great quick wonton and char siu pork noodle soup! )
Thai Shrimp Gyoza and Thai Vegetable Gyoza: There’s no window in the packaging for you see the actual dumplings but at $4.29, I expected them to be a high-class product. Sure enough, the dumplings were uncommonly handsome -- made on the larger side, about 3 1/2 inches long. They are handmade in Thailand and their nicely pleated appearance reflected that.
Surprisingly, they had been partially cooked beforehand and the bottoms were all slightly browned. Most frozen gyoza are not precooked this way. To test Trader Joe’s, I cooked the dumplings two ways – pan-fried like traditional pot stickers and steamed. The pan-fried ones cooked up with extra crisp bottoms, thanks to skins made from combining wheat flour and tapioca starch; some of the bottoms were a bit too crisp for my taste but that was the starch in operation.
The Thai gyoza fillings were more flavorful than that of the other Trader Joe’s dumplings that we sampled, but texturally, especially the vegetable one laden with garlic chives and napa cabbage, was awfully mushy. “You barely need teeth to eat these,” my husband remarked. The vegetable filling was pungent with a slight bitterness that was not overcome by my soy and vinegar dipping sauce. The shrimp filling was milder and you could distinguish the shrimp pieces, though there was little shrimp taste. As for the steamed ones (see photo above with the mini wontons), the pre-browned bottoms partially came apart as if bubbles had burst, making for an unattractive dumpling.
Our burning question as we ate the Trader Joe’s pot stickers was this: What made the dumplings Thai and Japanese? The flavor profile of both dumplings lacked any of the markings of Thai or Japanese cuisine. Where was the Southeast Asian flair and/or Japanese subtlety? To label a food Thai or Japanese is a great way to attract shoppers. (It attracted me!) But combining the two cuisines in one food and then not quite delivering a Thai-Japanese experience is over promising. It seems as if the Thai gyoza moniker was crafted in a cavalier fashion. Good appearance but lacking in substance.
Overall: Frozen mass-marketed Asian dumplings are not the same as homemade or even those that you get at a quality dim sum house. But for the ease associated with keeping these in the freezer for quick meal, these Trader Joe’s dumplings are okay. Compared to other convenience food that are laden with oddball preservatives and seasonings, these Trader Joe's products are made from wholesome, clean ingredients. They are not going to ‘pop’ in flavor as you may want as they’re developed for a very broad audience. With exception to the samosas (which I would not buy again), the other dumplings we sampled are not bad in a pinch and good when when you're having an extra lazy day.
In the realm of processed foods, we give them the grade of: B
See the tips for cooking frozen dumplings to help you refresh and cooking them well. If you have experience with Trader Joe's dumplings, either the ones sampled here, or others, let me know your thoughts. What brands of frozen dumplings do you like?