A lesson in dumplings

Since Snowpocalypse 2016 decided to stick it to our more southerly neighbors this weekend, we took advantage of the time to get together with one of our dear friends who has been promising for years to teach us to make traditional Chinese dumplings. 

I have long considered myself something of a connoisseur of dumplings. I try them at nearly every restaurant or opportunity I get. But my expertise only extends to the eating half of the work. I've certainly never made them from scratch, and was at somewhat of a loss as how to start. Our friend asked what kind I liked to eat (since that is apparently where my expertise stops).  I like the pork & cabbage variety best. 

During our conversation about what ingredients we needed to make sure we had on hand, I asked her if she used the frozen dumpling wrappers you can buy at the Asian market. I thought I was being pretty suave demonstrating that I even knew that there was such a thing as frozen dumpling wrappers. She made a face, and shook her head at me. 

"No. We will start by making the dough." 

Um. Ok. What goes into the dough?  I was imagining a special trip to get the ingredients from New York.

Nope. Just all purpose flour and water. 

"Really? Just all purpose flour? Like.. the all purpose flour I buy all the time?" 

"What did you think it was?"

"Well.. I don't know. Magical dumpling flour?"

That prompted another 'are you ok?' face. I quickly moved on. 

"OK. How much do you put in?"

"Enough for how many dumplings you want to make." 

Well yeah. That makes sense, I suppose. 

A lot of the directions took this form. There was very little measuring involved. It was done by feel, or heft, or my favorite - by smell. 

The dough was rolled and kneaded until it was quite firm. Just room temperature water, and what I think was about 4 or so cups of flour. But maybe it was 5.  Whatever it was, it was 'enough'. 

"How much salt do you add to the meat?"

"Until it smells like it is the right amount."

The ingredients were simple:

  • Ground pork (I ground it this morning from sausage trim left from on of our pigs. This was was named Rocky). We used about 2 lbs.  
  • Chopped ginger - only about a half a thumb's worth, chopped fine
  • Chopped onion - only because I forgot to go buy scallions. I used one onion, and tossed it through the grinder at the end (a good way to push the last meat through the grinder as well). If you were using scallions, you should chop 4 or 5 very fine
  • Chopped cabbage. I used about 3/4 head of a Savoy cabbage, as it's leafier and closer to Chinese cabbage. I chopped up about a quarter of it, and was told "finer". When I got the consistency right, our friend said "Good. Now chop more."
  • A tablespoon or so of white sugar.
  • Sesame oil. Just a few drops. 
  • Canola oil. Maybe an 1/4 cup, divided into two parts. 
  • Salt & white pepper

When our friend asked for chopsticks to stir the meat, I whipped out a pair I had bought on a whim a few years ago at an Asian market. "I will use these for stir fry's!" I declared. Which I did. Once.  They have rested in our drawer from that moment until today. I was rather smug at how my laziness made me look rather clever and worldly when I could produce them on demand. 

 Our friend carefully mixed everything together until smooth. 

The ginger, pork, salt & pepper were stirred together with the sesame oil and half the canola oil. 

'Don't mix the salt & pepper in with the vegetables. It will leach the water out.'

The rest of the oil was mixed in with the cabbage (and scallions if you've added). And only then was everything mixed together.  She would pause and smell the mixture occasionally to determine if the flavors were right. If it wasn't salty enough, you wouldn't smell the sesame correctly, she said.  

When she said it was good, I leaned over the bowl and smelled the meat before nodding sagely. 

With the dough done resting, we began to roll it out and chop it into the small balls for each dumpling. I got pretty ok at this part, though I was not nearly as fast as my teacher, who could whip out a flat, perfectly circular dumpling wrapper in about 4 seconds. 

It's a two handed exercise - one hand on the rolling pin, and one on the ball of dough, stretching and spinning it a little as you go, leaving a little hump of thicker dough in the middle. 


With a few done, we started on the really hard part: stuffing and folding them. 

Each took a healthy tablespoon of filling, and with some magical twisting and finger sorcery, out popped a perfectly formed dumpling. 

Not a "that looks pretty good" dumpling (which is about as well as I ever managed). But a "looks like it just came out of the restaurant kitchen professional level" dumpling. 

She tried to teach me several times, and my big clumsy fingers managed to sort of get the knack. My Bride, on the other hand, managed pretty well after a couple of pointers.

We even had the Critter trying. 

Even with a lot of practice, you could tell which were made by whom, when they lined up on the board.  

We may, or may not have gotten a little competitive over whose looked better. 

I'll save you from guessing. These weren't mine. 

Once we had enough ready, we started test boiling a few. 

"How long will they boil?"

"Put them in the water, and then let the water come back to a boil. Then add water again so it stops boiling, and let it come back to a full boil. Do that three times." 

Wait... um. What? 

I had to stop and replay that in my head, before I could make it out. But you know what? That totally worked. They came out perfectly done, with the great quality meat and the light, vegetable notes of the cabbage and  spices all perfectly balanced. 

We served them with a dipping sauce made from lots of finely minced garlic, soy sauce and chili vinegar.  When making this at home yourself, use more vinegar than soy sauce. 

I ate so many that I felt stuffed like a dumpling myself. 

Not only were they absolutely amazing, but it was so much fun to be taught by our friend to make something her mom and grandmother had taught her (even if she did laugh herself silly at my antics trying to make my dumplings look reasonably similar to her professional ones). A wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. 

Only two weeks until Chinese New Year's, when dumplings are a traditional food. I think this year, we'll be able to celebrate in style! 


Chinese Food

I don't remember ever eating at a Chinese restaurant growing up. 

That's not strictly true, I guess. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a girl in high school. She and I dated for most of high school. So I might have been 15. Or 17. When does 'growing up' stop? I'm also not really sure why I remember that date in particular. I mean, we went to a Chinese restaurant in suburban Georgia in the late '80s. Which I guess is pretty memorable. But I don't remember it like "Oh, hey - I know! Let's go on a grand adventure and try some of that foreign food."  In my memory, it was kind of an ordinary thing to do, which means I had probably done it before. Maybe it sticks out because it wasn't salmon cakes*. 

*(for that to make sense, you'd have to know that every time I went over to that girl's house to have dinner with her family, her mom was making salmon cakes. Every. Single. Time. For three years. I couldn't explain it. I also can't eat salmon cakes to this day. I think I used up my lifetime quota while we were dating. And probably yours, too.) (You couldn't have known that before I told you that story. But now you do, see?)

I don't know what we ordered that night - probably something on the order of Sweet And Sour Fried Chunks Of A Familiar Domestic Animal With Pineapple Chunks. Because that would have been safe.  I also don't remember what the name of the restaurant was. It didn't stand out. Most Chinese restaurant names in America come from the same standard formula. Pick a word from column A [Asia/Jade/Golden/Hunan/Bamboo/China] and add it to a word from column B [Palace/Wok/Panda/Dragon/Garden/Wall]. Boom. You've got yourself a Chinese restaurant. 

I know that I must have gone out to Chinese later on, when I had entered college and was spending time with much more worldly friends in downtown Atlanta. I remember a giant lazy susan, pots of green tea and twelve or so of us trying to figure out if we could afford something more than a couple of plates of egg rolls. As worldly as we were, we probably still didn't venture too far from the aforementioned sweet-and-sour-pineapple-meat. 

I do remember learning to make fried rice from my older brother at some point in my youth. Many years later, when I was staying for a weekend at a different girlfriend's apartment in San Francisco (the girl who would go on to become my beautiful Bride. Despite the story I am telling you now), I sought to impress her by making fried rice like my brother had taught me. Because I didn't know much. But I knew that chicks dig a guy who can cook. So I asked her if she had the ingredients handy. 

Her: 'Probably. What do you need?'

Me: 'Uncle Ben's rice. One beef bouillon cube. And an egg." 

Her: "... Uncl- ... what?! What the hell? No.  Just... no."

Me: "This is San Francisco. It is the San Francisco treat. I've seen the commercials."

Her: That's Rice-a-roni. And still no."

Apparently sensing that intervention was necessary, we met a bunch of friends for dim sum at a Chinese restaurant near San Jose. It's possible that some of my family might read this, and still have never gone to a Chinese restaurant outside of suburban Georgia in the late '80s. So let me explain. 

Dim sum is a style of Chinese food separate and different from all other Chinese foods. It's small, appetizer sized portions, typically dumplings, buns, or other small & conveniently shaped portions of delicious somethings served in a steamer basket or small bowl. They're like Chinese tapas**. It's a great weekend brunch kind of thing.  In the really good places, you don't order off a menu. The dishes are brought out in stacks on wheelie carts - three or four different kinds on a cart. You just point and they put a basket of something steaming hot on the table and stamp your bill. Keep choosing til you're full. 

**Which may not help much in explanation. I didn't try tapas until I was almost thirty. 



I was never really a picky eater as a kid. I just was not adventurous. (Which I maintain is a different thing). I stuck to the things I knew, and was pretty happy. So when we went to this particular restaurant, I tried to figure out which mysterious basket held something that was sort of close to my comfort zone. I didn't expect to find anything in the Sweet and Sour food group, but I figured I could find something at least vaguely familiar. 

I pointed at one of the baskets and asked the cart-pusher, "What's in this one?" She said something back to me in Chinese. Which may or may not have included the ingredients in that particular dish. I smiled and tried again. "What's in this basket?"  She responded in Chinese again. Except louder, and more slowly. I shook my head shyly and waited for the next cart. 

Unfortunately, that didn't prove to be enough time to improve my Mandarin much. The lady helpfully tipped back the lids of the baskets so I could see the choices, though. Which all looked like a sweaty wonton wrapper, squished around small chopped bits of various somethings. One basket contained something that looked an awful lot like boiled chickens feet. (Turns out, they were boiled chickens feet). This had definitely not been on the menu of the Jade Wok of Conyers, GA. 

The pretty girl that had brought me smiled encouragingly between bites of ... whatever... she was eating, and offered me one out of one of the baskets she had chosen. I was hesitant, but I was also pretty desperate to not look like I was hesitant, and somewhat nervous that my earlier Uncle Ben's comment had not improved my chances of seeing this girl naked again. (Note to my children: only after we got married. By a priest. In a church. With our familys' blessing). So I took one.

It was delicious. I had no idea what was in it. Neither did she. 

Suddenly, I figured out that was kind of the fun, and I started pointing at things, and baskets were dumped on our table. Sometimes, the cart lady would cut up the longer sweaty wantons. Sometimes, she would pour an equally mysterious sauce on my plate that I guessed was supposed to make the dish taste better. It worked. Sure, every once in a while, I would find one that I didn't care for, and I'd try and remember its particular shape so I didn't order it again (anything with taro root). (also. the chickens feet).  But I still look back on that lunch as the moment that would've let me eat the two cups of live catepillar gumbo for a million bucks or whatever reality show I might end up on. 

Fortunately, the Critter has never had an issue - she started out as an adventurous eater, and while she's got a couple of things that aren't really her bag (e.g. beans. Of all the things in the world), she'll try pretty much anything at least once.  

The Boy, on the other hand, is pretty much just like I was. He'll eat anything, if it's covered in a decent amount of ketchup. But his instinct is to stick to what he knows. Chicken. Bread. Maybe some green beans. Anything that comes from a cereal box, with or without milk. And peanut butter. Probably not all together at once. 

But one day, Boy. You're going to meet a girl who's going to take you to a Chinese restaurant. And you're going to have a choice. 

I recommend anything but the chicken's feet.