What else can make the daily dust- and smoke-filled city commute more bearable than a serving of steamed, meat-filled siomai?
Though rooted in Chinese shaomai, siomai has found its place in Filipino culture. Between the high-brow dumplings served at grand Chinese restaurants and the dirt-cheap variants peddled on the streets, siomai is found everywhere, for every budget and situation.
Like its predecessor, most local siomai come stuffed with ground pork and/or shrimp by default. Cheaper brands take on a simplified approach with the filling, going for a mix of meat and extenders—and train station kiosks hawking these teacup-shaped treats have become a default lunch for the on-the-go workers on a budget.
As with the Filipino custom of sawsawan, diners personalize each bite with their own blend of toyo, calamansi, and a good lashing of chili-garlic sauce.
In the quest for the food cart siomai with the most bang for your buck, the Pepper team tasted four of the more commercially accessible and affordable brands on the market: Siomai House, Hen Lin, Siomai King, and Master Siomai.
We make no claims to be experts, but we sought siomai that offers the strongest harmony between wrapper, filling, and sauce. This means having a skin that’s moist and springy (but not too thick that it overtakes the meat within) and a filling that’s tender and juicy with as much semblance of real meat as possible for the price range. The siomai as a whole should be flavorful (even without sauce) without assaulting the senses with too much salt or MSG.
So which food cart brand earns the title of the best daily dumpling?
Siomai House: Pork-Shrimp Steamed Siomai
Php30 for 4pcs = Php7.50/pc
As the only dumpling on the list with no orange marks and a grayish hue, Siomai House’s looks as appealing as soggy bread. On a sulit level, Siomai House’s dumplings are noticeably larger than the rest. But this isn’t a beauty contest.
How does it actually taste? Though the skin peels off too easily, it is silky and moist without being mushy. With the filling’s neutral flavor, there is little to distract from the taste of MSG. And it has a dense bite, likened by some tasters to sausage.
Their chili fared much better. With distinct bits of minced garlic in the oil—some soft, some crunchy—it has a balanced flavor that shuffles between salty and tangy, before finishing with heat. There’s a mild burnt-ness that one taster wasn’t a fan of, but the others loved.
Hen Lin: Shrimp-Pork Siomai
Php33 for 3pcs = Php11/pc
Despite its shriveled wrapper with soggy segments, Hen Lin’s siomai got positive feedback from our panel. The filling had the closest semblance to real meat—unlike the homogenous consistency of the rest—and had visible bits of shrimp. Tasters commended its balance of savoriness and sweetness, with both the pork and the shrimp flavors given representation.
The panel unanimously loved their siomai but were divided on their chili. With a jet-black hue, it appears to be made with roasted pepper skins finely chopped in its surrounding oil. It’s barely salty on its own, but carried the most robust flavor of the bunch: burnt (even more so than Siomai House’s) and very, very hot, with the lingering sweetness of roasted red peppers.
It was a hit with one of our tasters who likened the chili to XO sauce and bagoong; others found thought it was too burnt-tasting for their liking.
Siomai King: Hong Kong Siomai (pork with garlic)
Php28 for 5pcs = Php5.60/pc
The cheapest on the list, Siomai King’s appeared to be mostly fillers. Its overly uniform texture and lack of anything remotely resembling meat fibers gave it a sausage-like quality similar to Siomai House’s, but denser, to the point of being gummy. The soggy skin feels as though it coats the tongue with flour. There is a subtle whisper of garlic akin to a mildly seasoned longganisa.
Their chili, a mix of finely-chopped toasted garlic and chili seeds in oil, is certainly unique. The sweet, toasty flavor of the garlic dominates; the kick of chili sneaks up at the end. Significantly crunchy, it’s fun to nibble on, even on its own.
Master Siomai: Pork and Shrimp Siomai
Php30/4pcs = 7.50/pc
Spongy and mushy, Master Siomai disintegrates easily and offers little to no bite. Think: Siomai House is to commercialized hotdogs as Master Siomai is to canned Vienna sausage. The flavor strikes us as odd; it’s hard to identify just what it tastes like. There’s a hint of sweetness past its predominantly savory character, and not in an unpleasant way.
Their chili is less spicy than the others, but carries a tanginess and slight sweetness. This might disappoint chili fans looking for a stronger kick, but its fruity character gives their siomai a much-needed lift.
Unsurprisingly, price was proportional to outcome in this taste-test. Hen Lin’s higher price tag was justified by their use of real meat and shrimp—needless to say, their dumplings win hands-down.
The other three brands were overly processed in comparison. Still, they each have their strong points: the skin on Siomai House’s, the garlicky flavor on Siomai King’s, and the balance of salty and sweet on Master Siomai’s.
The chili sauces differed wildly per brand, with no clear winner, as reactions to the sauces depended on the tasters’ preferences. One thing is for sure: they all do a great job of providing punch to their respective dumplings—which is much-needed, given the suspect composition and quiet flavors of the siomai.
It would clearly be unfair to compare the budget options to restaurant siomai. But when hunger strikes and you’re in transit with just a few coins in your pocket, there’s no denying the satisfaction these accessible brands bring—pseudo-meat, mystery bits, and all. For that, we pay commuter siomai our deep respect. If all else fails, douse ’em in sauce.