Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Great Oxford Dumpling-Off

If you're in Gloucester Green on a Wednesday or Thursday, around lunchtime, the chances are you will see a lot of people with plastic forks and beige polystyrene boxes. These don't contain kebabs; during the day, Oxford's tastes extend further east. Gloucester Green market, once home merely to the famous momo van, now hosts no fewer than four stalls offering Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan dumplings. I tend to visit one or other, often influenced by not much more than relative queue lengths, but now I've decided to be - a bit - objective.
First up is the only outlet to break the £5 barrier: Taste Tibet (Wednesdays only), where a box of meat momos with a generous serving of cucumber salad and optional chilli and tomato sauce costs £5.50. The stall itself is definitely the most 'upmarket'. Its high-quality decorations have a Tibetan theme (prayer flags and the like), and the hoardings stress the fresh and homemade credentials of the food, which isn't limited to dumplings but includes sweet and savoury flatbreads [edit: I've also been asked to say that the dumpling boxes are not polystyrene but made of sugar cane, bamboo and reed, and are 100% compostable].  The quality of the momos is high too: they're filling without being at all stodgy or greasy, the meat ones in particular are delicately seasoned, and the cucumber provides a light but substantial contrast. 
This feels close to a 'real' meal, albeit one in a disposable box. You get what you pay for and, based on two visits now, my main reservation about Taste Tibet concerns not the food but the service, which is quite laboured. I think this is partly due to the fact that this is a newish stall. On my first visit I had to wait about half an hour even though there were only three people in front. The second time was better, partly as the owner had acquired an assistant; even so, operations could have been slicker. I'm not saying all street food has to be delivered with the speed of a Pret coffee, but rationalising tasks and working out who does what when is only going to benefit the stall (and help it match its competitors). That said, I'm sure they'll carry on improving. 8/10
From Tibet to Japan: next up is Gyoza and Buns (Wednesdays and Thursdays), with a name that tells you everything you need to know about what they serve (in a smiley and speedy manner - the queues can get long but move fast). You can pay £2 for five gyozas (chicken or vegetable) or £3.80 for ten, and £1.60 for a pork, chicken or egg and chive bun. As the photo (above) shows, these are classy little dumplings: each one looks carefully hand-sealed and is seared on one side, and they come with a sprinkling of chopped herbs and sesame seeds on top. The contents are tasty and well-seasoned, the outside almost pasta-like. A serving of five makes a decent small lunch, or would alternatively leave enough space for a bun, although anyone who is still on the Atkins diet should beware of these buns. It's not as if they're are underweight, but their ample and flavoursome fillings (I particularly like the pork ones, which are leavened with plenty of chopped onion) melt into an outside that is pure white carbohydrate. It's moreish in a doughy sort of way but there's so much of it that I generally leave the final quarter, or regret it if I don't. 8/10

Next there's Sasha's 'Big Dumplings' (Wednesdays and Thursdays), which once again are served in a quick and friendly manner, at a stall covered with recycled Burger King banners (there might be a point to be made about the triumph of the small-scale over the multinational here). They come in pork, chicken or vegetable varieties and cost £2.50 for five or £4.50 for ten (insider tip: if you ask for five 'mixed', you generally get two of each). They are much heartier than the ones from Gyoza and Buns: the wrapping is thick and chewy, and tends to be blistered by the heat of the pan. As for the contents, the chicken version can be a touch dry but the beef is tasty and the vegetable ones an interesting mix of slightly spicy flavours, as far as is possible in a couple of mouthfuls, anyway. That said, they are usually quite greasy, as you can see from the photo. I'm happy to eat five - they're satisfying in a vaguely unhealthy sort of way - but would be unlikely to order ten. 7/10
 Finally, back to the momo van (Wednesdays and Thursdays), which I last reviewed in March 2012. I haven't tried this outlet very much since then, as I think I'd convinced myself the momos were stodgy and dull. Perhaps they were (my original post liked them, but not unreservedly); however, in October 2014 I was pleasantly surprised. They still cost what they did then (£4 for ten momos, £3 for a box of rice, £3.50 for half and half), but I found my boxful of rice and dumplings delicious. The rice, fluffy and containing a generous mixture of vegetables and grilled bacon, came close to restaurant 'special rice' quality. The dumplings are chunky with hearty-flavoured fillings and a pleasantly chewy but light outside, and are not at all greasy. Extra kimchee along with the standard 'hot' and 'not hot' sauces is also appreciated. Despite the advent of competition in the last two years, the queue for momos is often as long as it ever was, and I can see why. 9/10

It seems appropriate to be doing a post about food stalls on the eve of Oxford's first ever street food festival. I haven't even exhausted Gloucester Green's possibilities: the market also boasts a range of other lunch destinations. If I can face another gruelling round of testing, I might try them next...


  1. Awesome post! I've only tried the big steamed buns, but will go for Taste of Tibet next...thanks for your in-depth comparison, it makes the tough choice a bit easier.