Jiaozi 饺子 (dumplings)
First, a couple of warnings. There are a few things that can mess you up: Overly wet filling – there should be no visible liquid Old, dried-out wrappers Both are easy to avoid. The basic filling is made by combining the following
- Ground pork
- Chinese (Napa) cabbage, finely chopped and mixed with a little salt and squeezed dry (this can be done in a colander – save the liquid to add to the broth)
- Green onions, finely chopped
- Fresh ginger, finely chopped
- Optional: Fresh coriander, finely chopped
- Soy sauce
- Dark sesame oil
- A little salt
- Test the seasonings by frying a small amount of the filling until cooked. Adjust seasonings after tasting.
- Bring a large, wide pot of water to a boil on the highest setting. Slide the dumplings into the water by putting the plate holding the dumplings as close as possible to the surface of the water and gently toppling them in. Each batch should include only as many dumplings as would fit across the surface of the water – you are not trying to fill the entire pot with dumplings.
- Cover and let the water come back to a boil. Add a cup (no need to measure this precisely) of water and again wait for the water to come back to a boil. At this point, your dumplings should be ready to eat. They generally come to the surface when done, so it’s easy to scoop them out with a slotted spoon or Chinese sieve or spider – a great addition to kitchen utensils, by the way, and available in many sizes for only a few dollars at the Asian supermarket.
- Kitchen preparationsWhile that batch is being served and eaten, keep the pot on high and slide in another plateful of prepared dumplings when the water boils.
- The boiling method is best for quantity cooking, but jiaozi are also delicious steamed in a traditional bamboo stacked steamer or any facsimile (my All-Clad soup pot has a steamer, which worked perfectly but is less efficient than the Chinese steamer). And a Chinese friend taught me how to fry dumplings, and made the name “potsticker” easy to understand: Heat a well-oiled skillet and place the dumplings in a single layer over medium heat. Add a splash of water, enough to create steam but not drown the dumplings, and cover the skillet. They will brown on the bottom and steam on the top. My friend did not turn them over at all – [he/she] just slid them out onto a platter when done.
Basic jiaozi do not contain garlic.[br][br]Some people feel that all the ingredients should be chopped by hand with a large, sharp cleaver. I’m a heathen and happily use a food processor, chopping the cabbage first so it can be salted and squeezed dry. Next time I plan to try the grater and slicer blades for some of the ingredients. I purchase ground meat, but you could certain chop that yourself, too, for better texture.[br][br]Vegetarian/vegan options abound. I’ve eaten jiaozi filled with carrot, pumpkin, and a green vegetable mixture that reminded me of leeks. The simplest is to substitute tofu for pork in the classic recipe above, although you might want to increase the seasonings a little because tofu is bland. If your tofu is high in moisture, you may want to squeeze it out by placing it on a cutting board in the sink, at an angle, setting another board over it and then a weight (I use a baking pan, filled with water to make it heavier). Leave for an hour or more, then mash it into the other ingredients.[br][br]I like to add finely chopped garlic and dried mushrooms to this mixture. This New Year I used dried shiitake and wood-ear mushrooms from the Chinese supermarket. I soaked them overnight, chopped them very finely, and squeezed them dry in a towel before adding to the tofu mixture. We generally cook the vegetarian dumplings first and move on to the meat, but you may want to have two pots going at once – this speeds up the process, too.[br][br]This article explains the technique better than I could. Great photos with recipes for homemade wrappers and three fillings.Dumplings[br][br][b]How many jiaozi to make?[/b][br][br]Jiaozi are a meal in themselves, and you should make vast quantities. I always think of an account of eating dumplings in the 1980s, when China was much, much poorer, in a wonderful, vivid book called Coming Home Crazy, by an American from Minnesota, a 6’6” giant of Icelandic descent named Bill Holm. He was a great eater, but even he seemed surprised at just how many dumplings his Chinese friends could eat. It seems to be impossible to make too many dumplings. I would love to have leftovers – they’re easy to reheat in the microwave – but that almost never happens, so keep cooking! Balancing the quantity of filling to wrappers can be tricky, of course. Double-bag and freeze wrappers if you think you’ll have another chance to use them, or make a quick batch of egg and tomato filling to use them up on the spot. Extra filling can be used in soup, or fried up with a bit of cold rice.[br][br][b]Ingredients[/b][br][br]Perfectly acceptable jiaozi can be made with ingredients available in any US supermarket, except perhaps in deepest North Dakota or perhaps Idaho. And I’ll bet that even there you can now buy Japanese soy sauce and dark sesame oil, which provide essential flavors. Cilantro is available, thanks to the popularity of Mexican food, and ditto for dried red chili pepper flakes. Chinese vinegar, used in a typical dipping sauce, is the hardest thing to find a substitute for. I’ve never seen it outside Asian markets, and have spent time with Chinese friends examining our vinegars – all pale and weak and insipid looking. Chinese vinegar is a big deal. There’s even a city of over 3 million people, Zhenjiang, known for its vinegar. (Simon Winchester has a wonderful account of visiting Zhenjiang in his book The River at the Center of the World.)[br][br]Until recently, when I first saw Chinese friends on Long Island turning out homemade dumpling wrappers as if they were whipping up a couple of eggs, the wrappers were the limiting factor. We used to wait to make jiaozi until we could take a trip to an Asian market in Albany or Amherst. Ironically, just as I figured out that they are not hard to make from flour and water, they’ve appeared in Big Y, one of the two supermarkets in Great Barrington, so we’ve never short. They come in different sizes, shapes, and colors, too. I generally buy the round yellow ones, but I notice that jiaozi in photos are generally very pale so perhaps thewhite wrappers would give a more authentic appearance.[br][br]Look at the packages and feel them also: it’s very important that the wrappers are fresh and soft and moist, not beginning to dry out at the edges. They can be stored in the fridge for a week or more, or in the freezer, but do seal them in another plastic bag to keep them from drying out.[br][br]And all this advice will be moot if you listen to my Chinese friends, who are dismayed that I would use purchased wrappers. “If you, a waiguoren, are going to try to make jiaozi, you should do things the right way,” their eyes suggest. Watch a video and see how easy it is, or find a Chinese neighbor or colleague who will let you watch.[br][br]The collaborative, repetitive, skilled production of basic foods, talking and laughing and tasting as we work, has to be an experience as embedded in the human psyche as anything we do. It’s akin to planting and harvesting, and even to foraging. Think of all the work our ancestors did, pounding acorns and threshing grain. And if you look at any traditional cuisine, there are many things that require a group of people in the kitchen. Food preparation shouldn’t be a solitary activity, and that’s what makes the jiaozi feast at New Year so important.[br][br]Jiaozi are standard street food and snack food in many parts of China, and a jiaozi party is great fun on any cool evening. Making and eating jiaozi is an introduction to the big heart of China – the laughter, the conversation, and savoring of simple ingredients in perfect harmony – steam rising, the rich aromatic scents of ginger and sesame oil wafting, and the sizzle of chili pepper making our noses tingle. There’s no better way to spend an evening, and we’ll certainly be doing it again before the snows of Winter 2015 melt.