by: Lianna Lee
I remember clearly sitting down to a steamer of jiaozi (dumplings) during one of my first nights as a study abroad student in Beijing. I was hungry, exhausted from language immersion, and in need of a comforting meal. As a friend and I confused the waitstaff with our American accents, I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally managed to communicate that we wanted dumplings. Naturally, we had no idea if we’d ordered them steamed or pan-fried, but that’s water beneath the bridge.
The dumplings that followed are something I still dream about. Toothsome pockets of joy, filled with eggs and carrots that had been folded in a thinly rolled silken dough, and nestled inside an iconic bamboo steamer. Those egg and carrot dumplings became my go-to meal as I navigated Beijing, and as with any good comfort food, I associate them with warmth and relaxation.
After my stint in Beijing, I searched for jiaozi in Western Mass, but couldn’t quite find what I was craving. Once you’ve tasted a simple food that is everything you’ve ever craved from a meal – warm, filling, and uncomplicated – all mediocre renditions that follow are unsatisfying.
It never occurred to me to make dumplings from scratch because I thought it would be too difficult. One day I picked up Brian Yarvin’s book, “A World of Dumplings,” mostly so I could admire pictures and daydream about eating Pierogis. He’s a guy who likes dumplings and then went on an impressive dumpling bender by learning how to make as many types of dumplings as possible. The result is 288 pages of global recipes, dipping sauces, and advice. Check Yarvin’s book out ASAP if you love dumplings.
I chose to go with a basic wheat flour wrapper and chicken and vegetable filling. Since this was my first time out of the gate making jiaozi, it was a time-consuming process. You have to roll out each individual wrapper, dice your veggies, make the dipping sauce, fill and fold each individual dumpling, then wait for them to steam. Aaaiiiiyah, so much work. Set aside 3 hours if you are doing all of this by yourself. You could even invite friends over under the guise of throwing a dumpling making party and put them to work making wrappers and folding dumplings.
Recipes copied from “A World of Dumplings”:
3 cups flour, plus extra flour for the work surface
1 cup boiling water
Put the flour in a large bowl, and add the boiling water. Use a wooden spoon to blend well. If the dough is dry and cracking, add more water 1 T at a time until moist and springy. If the dough is sticky, add more flour 1 T at a time until it’s smooth. When the mixture has cooled a bit, knead it for about 7 minutes or until a poke with a finger causes it to bounce back like a soft pillow. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
After the dough has rested, use your thumb to poke a hole in the center. Gradually enlarge the hole until it looks like a large bagel. Using a sort of hand-over-hand technique, squeeze the dough until it forms a rope about 3/4 inch in diameter.
To make the dumpling wrappers, slice the dough into pieces about 3/4 inch long, and roll each piece into a ball. On a floured work surface, roll out the ball into a thin disk about 3 inches in diameter. A piece of parchment paper between the dough and rolling pin will make things a bit easier.
Store the formed wrappers between sheets of parchment or waxed paper so that they don’t dry out. If you won’t be working with them within a few minutes, refrigerate them.
If you are pressed for time Nasoya wrappers can be used instead of making dough. Be forewarned: these wrappers don’t taste great.
1.5 lbs ground chicken
1 cup chopped napa cabbage
4 cloves garlic
2 T minced scallions
1 T chopped ginger
1 cup cilantro leaves
2 T soy sauce
1 T black vinegar (I didn’t have this so I added rice vinegar instead)
1 T sesame oil
1 T ground white pepper (again, didn’t have this so I subbed red pepper flakes)
Shopping tips: All of these ingredients, with the exception of black vinegar, can easily be found in your typical Stop and Shop or chain grocery store. Kam Man in Quincy is a good shopping destination if you’d like to branch out with other Chinese dishes.
To make the filling, combine the chicken, cabbage, garlic, scallions, ginger, cilantro, soy sauce, vinegar, oil, and pepper in a food processor, and blend to a thick paste.
Fill the dumplings! Finally. Yay. This video is helpful.
Line your steamer basket with a single layer of napa cabbage leaves, and steam the dumplings over high heat for about 15 minutes or until the meat is completely cooked. Cut into a dumpling to make sure the chicken is cooked through. If you’re using the stackable bamboo steamer inserts, rotate them every 5 minutes so that each layer gets a chance to be close to the heat. Serve immediately.
Crafty tip: If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, then pie tins to the rescue. Grab a fork to perforate the bottom and voila you’ve got yourself a makeshift dumpling steamer. Flip it over, line the top with a layer of cabbage, and steam away.
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 T black vinegar
1 T sesame oil
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tsp sugar
Optional: hot chili oil
Throw this all into a bowl and combine. Adjust amounts depending on what you like. I added scallions and chili flakes to my sauce. Honey can be subbed in for the sugar.
Ultimately these dumplings were nothing like the ones I ate in Beijing, but that was okay because I had a blast making and eating them. Sometimes the process of making something by hand is enough to satiate our cravings. Happy cooking!
Lianna Lee is a 20-something graduate of Mount Holyoke College where she earned a degree in Environmental Studies. Currently, she is serving as an AmeriCorps member with the Wildlands Trust as their Outreach Coordinator. Lee’s 2013 food goals include making gelato, successfully growing tomatoes, and eating a sublime bowl of chowdah.