Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand. – Chinese Proverb
Making Chinese Dumplings
Dumplings are one of the most celebrated foods in China, and are a staple food around the world. They go by many names worldwide: Jiaozi -Chinese; Gyoza – Japanese; Mandu – Korean; Momo – India; Pierogi / Kreplach / Tortellini – Europe, and so many more . Whatever they are called dumplings are, without doubt, comfort food. In China they are the traditional New Years food, but are one of the most popular daily dishes as well. Once they are stuffed, they can easily be frozen for a quick meal. There are hundreds of varieties of dumplings, but I’m going to share my favorite – the one’s my wife makes (lucky me 🙂 Please leave a comment if you want to share your recipe.
Making the wrapper: You only need two ingredients to make the skin/wrappers flour and water – you could add a dash of salt if you prefer. The amount of flour you use depends on the number of dumplings. Wash your hands first. Dump flour into a bowl. Sprinkle water on to get started. Mix the water and flour, add water a little at a time until it begins to clump (you don’t want it to get too sticky). Mix thoroughly and shape into a ball. Spread flour on breadboard (or any clean hard surface). Roll out the dough and cut into pieces. Shape each piece into a ball about the size of a cherry tomato. Roll flat. Viola – you have a wrapper/skin. Make sure there is a little flour on each side and stack them up. They can be kept in the refrigerator for later if you make extra.
Filling: The jiaozi filling is the key traditional element that is handed down from generation to generation. This is the little taste of home that warms the heart while satisfies the soul (an stomach of course). My wife’s family uses three simple ingredients. We will star with the two that are easily available anywhere: chopped chives (you can substitute green onion stalks) and minced pork. The third ingredient is where Chinese cooking takes on its other role – food as medicine. In traditional Chinese cooking, the separate ingredients need to be balanced and provide some healthy benefit to the body. One essential item to keep on hand for Chinese cooking is the edible jelly fungus known as: black fungus/ cloud ear/ wood ear… These are bought dry and re-hydrated before cooking. It also adds a pleasant texture to the dumpling. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the fungus is said to benefit people with high blood pressure, heart disease, lowers cholesterol, and aids in cleaning the lungs. It is sweeten and eaten as a dessert in Cantonese cuisine.
Combine Ingredients and Stuff the Dumpling: Combine the diced ingredients together with a little corn starch. Use chopsticks to make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout. Another subtle element of Chinese cuisine is the balancing of fresh flavors and textures. China, as I’ve said before, is a food culture. Food unites people. Food summons up the deepest memories of childhood and shared family experiences. Families show they care with the food they share. The first year I met my wife’s brothers and sister, I made burritos for the final meal of New Years (Lantern Day). They were so happy to share such a dish, and I became part of the family’s holiday tradition. So mix the ingredients gently with love. Take one of the dumpling skins and fill it with about a half teaspoon or so of filling. Do not overfill the jiaozi – that is why my dumpling making attempts failed. I was too greedy 🙂 Every man must learn how to make dumplings though. Dip your finger in water and run your moistened finger around half the skin. Fold over the skin and crimp the edges. There are many ways to do this part too. Shape into a crescent moon shape.
Cooking: Traditionally jiaozi are steamed, but they also can be boiled or fried. You can use a steamer basket over a pan or the steamer basket in a rice cooker which is what my wife does. Fill the rice cooker with about a cup or two of water. Line the steamer basket with your delicious jiaozi. Put the cooker on steam and close the lid. Wait – this is the hardest part, once the mouth-watering aromas begin to rise. While you are waiting make the sauce. The dipping sauce is another family tradition passed down from the older generations, or simply a matter of personal taste. My wife’s family uses a combination of vinegar with a dash of a favorite soy sauce. Remove the dumplings when finished and repeat. Place the dumplings on a plate and serve.
Finding comfort in the kitchen and around the table. Making jiaozi together is an important element of traditional family life in China, especially around the Lunar New Year. People often work far from their hometowns and do not get to see their extended family members except on holidays. The Lunar New Year holiday is the longest holiday and hundreds of millions of people travel back home to see their family. But dumplings are not just for holidays. Many of the school kids I taught would often have dumplings for breakfast or lunch. When I lived in China, I could set my watch by the grandmothers who walked by my apartment on their way to buy the freshest ingredients for the day. And an hour or so before dinner, the apartment complex would resound with the staccato rhythms of chopping, mincing, dicing. All those noises of preparing meals together, laughing, sizzling, would be balanced by the symphony of smells wafting on the evening breeze. This would be followed by boisterous conversations around the table. Happy memories and family togetherness would be reinforced each day around dishes of jiaozi/dumplings. Call them what you will, just don’t call me late for dinner. If you have a favorite recipe, please leave a comment below.