From Mangaluru, with dumplings of love for noodles, momos and more

What happens when you fall in love with noodles, soups, and every type of dumpling? You make a business out of it, says Megha Polali.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published May 25, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMay 25, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Megha Polali started That Dumpling Girl in 2020. (Supplied)

For most people, hankering for home food in a distant land would probably mean just that — food cooked in one’s family kitchen. For Mangalurean Megha Polali, it was desi Chinese.

“One day, I was in the Mall of the Emirates and came across the renowned Din Tai Fung. I began to miss eating momos and Indo-Chinese food terribly,” she says of the time in 2014, when she visited the Dubai unit of the Taiwanese restaurant chain known for its noodles and dumplings.

Her love for Indo-Chinese

Megha Polali. (Varun Pinto)

Megha Polali. (Varun Pinto)

Polali was in her early 20s when she first discovered and became fascinated by the world of noodles, momos — a chicken dumpling dish of Nepali-Tibetan origin — and the Indian version of Chinese cuisine served in Indian restaurants, prepared using Indian ingredients and Chinese sauces.

That day in the Dubai mall, all the old love for her favourite food flared up once again. The sumptuous Cantonese meal made her instantly happy — an emotion she had not felt before for a cuisine.

“I remember sitting there and thinking, someday I would like to own a restaurant that has the same energy as Din Tai Fung; not a dim sum restaurant but a restaurant that has a similar vibe where people came because the food gave them so much joy,” Polali (38) told South First.

A few years later, in 2018, Polali visited Hong Kong. This trip further deepened her love for dim sums — an assortment of dumplings made using chicken, prawns, and vegetables — and Far Eastern Asian food in general.

“I became captivated by the intricate world of Asian culinary techniques and ingredients, and was determined to make it an integral part of my own culinary identity,” she says.

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A place of her own

Today, Polali is living out the dream, running a charming boutique kitchen called That Dumpling Girl in Mangaluru that specialises in Cantonese, Chinese, and Thai meals.

“It all feels like it was meant to be,” she says and adds, “But it still feels surreal.”

Born in Kerala’s Kasaragod and raised in Mangaluru, Polali comes from a family deeply rooted in the love for food. In fact, she says that she draws “a lot of inspiration” from her grandmother.

She is also a self-taught cook, having never learnt to cook professionally.

And though Polali began her professional life in marketing and advertising, spending “8-10 years” in that field, she says, “It was always a stopgap option.” Her explanation, “I knew all along at some point I would quit to pursue my passion for cooking.”

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Starting young

Polali specialises in dumplings of different kinds. (Supplied)

Polali specialises in dumplings of different kinds. (Supplied)

This choice was, perhaps, quite obvious, given that Polali had been honing her culinary skills since the age of 12.

“Initially, my experiments in the kitchen were driven by a curiosity to learn the art of North Indian cuisine,” she says.

“Growing up in a South Indian household, the flavours and techniques of North Indian food held an irresistible allure over me,” says Polali.

But the numerous delightful meals at Din Tai Fung in 2014 were probably the turning point in her life; she realised she missed them when she returned to India in 2018.

“This motivated me to learn the intricate art of making dumplings and noodles,” Polali says.

At first, Polali referred YouTube videos and cookbooks. After that, she worked for eight months in the Asian section of a restaurant kitchen called Brook’s 37 in Bengaluru.

The rest, as she says, was always meant to be.

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Dumpling, XOXO

Brioche doughnuts. (Supplied)

Brioche doughnuts. (Supplied)

That Dumpling Girl, a weekend-only boutique kitchen, started at the end of 2020. At first, it was only for friends and family. But the demand grew organically.

Almost everything is produced in-house from scratch — from the dumpling wrappers to the noodles used in the soup bowls.

The menu offers a variety of dishes like dumplings, fried chicken, chow mein, and noodle soup bowls, “and each of the dishes has its own loyal following”, she says.

Polali is known for crafting noodles, dumplings, sauces, and condiments. While the process is challenging, she accepts it is equally rewarding.

Polali's cookies have its own following. (Supplied)

Polali’s cookies have its own following. (Supplied)

“Coming up with new styles of dumplings, noodle bowls or new recipes often involves a learning curve and making sure that I am getting the nuances right. What I find most challenging is figuring out how to scale it and deliver a larger batch without compromising on taste,” Polali explains.

All the ingredients that go into making the meals come from different parts of India. In addition to these, Polali also offers a selection of sweet treats. “These include cookies and doughnuts, which have become quite popular amongst my client base, and they swear it is one of the best they have eaten,” she says.

“Honestly, the cookies have a following of their own and have travelled to different parts of India and abroad. I have loyal customers who regularly order cookies from outside Mangaluru.”

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Pop-ups for life

In April, Polali did her first pop-up in Mangaluru with BuCo — an artisanal bakery and café.

“I remember telling my mum when I started That Dumpling Girl that pop-ups are something I want to do,” she laughs. “It’s taken me a bit of time to make that dream into reality.”

At some point, Polali wants to open a restaurant, and also travel and learn more about Cantonese, Chinese, Thai, and a few other regional cuisines.

“I have barely scratched the surface,” she says. “Definitely, a few more pop-ups and a long way to go.”