“They must sit up straight and not be lazy,” our instructor commanded as she surveyed the room.
I looked around at my fellow classmates, a German grandpa and his son-in-law, and a father-daughter duo from Singapore.
I’m here to learn how to make dumplings, China’s iconic snack. Thankfully our teacher Sophia is chastising the dumplings, not us, for their lackadaisical attitude.
“If they are lazy and fall over you will lose all of your money,” she warns. Sophia explains that “jiaozi” or dumplings to us foreigners, are shaped a little bit like the ingots that were used as currency during the Ming dynasty. If your “money purse” falls over, it’s a bad omen for your finances. Similarly, the filling might spill out from toppled dumplings. Shaping the dumplings correctly therefore is important.
The history of jiaozi goes back almost two thousand years, Sophia explains, when a famous Chinese medicine doctor was faced with a village full of patients with frostbitten ears. Seeking a cure for the malnourished, suffering villagers, he combined mutton with chopped medicinal herbs and warming spices and steamed it into ear-shaped soothing dough packages.
The villagers ate the dumplings and recovered, crediting their renewed health to the jiaozi prepared by the doctor. Thus began the tradition of eating dumplings at the beginning of the new year to bring health and prosperity.
But thankfully we don’t have to wait until they new year to enjoy them. I can’t walk more than a few blocks or so without finding a place to stop for dumplings. Even the frozen ones make a pretty good afterschool snack that can be prepared in a hurry. That’s important when you have two teenagers who can down a dozen or two in one sitting,
We started from scratch, making a simple dough from flour and water. Vegetable juice, like carrot, spinach or beet, can be used instead to color the dough.
“The texture should be like playdough,” Sophia tells us, as she walks around to inspect. Do Chinese kids play with playdough I wonder?
Satisfied with our efforts, she instructs us to let the dough rest while we start making the filling. If we don’t let the gluten rest, the dough will be too bouncy to work with.
There are probably as many recipes for dumpling fillings as there are cooks in China. Eggs, tofu, pork, beef, mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, leeks, vermicelli, carrots — can all be incorporated. The key is the fillings must be dry, not soggy. Eggs and tofu must be cooked first for that reason, and water must be squeezed out of other vegetables.
The workhorse in every Chinese kitchen is a big cleaver, called a cai dao. It’s sharp, big, heavy and a little bit intimidating . I can understand why they require permits to buy these things.
“Hold it like a ping pong paddle,” Sophia suggests. “Like Westerners do, not Chinese,” she says, clarifying the type of grip we should have on our cai dao.
We chop vegetables, mince ginger and cilantro, add in five spice powder, salt, pepper, vinegar, cooking wine and mix our fillings. Thankfully no one loses a finger.
“Don’t forget to add a pinch of sugar. It’s the magic seasoning that brings all of the flavors together,” Sophia tells us.
Next we wake the dough up from its nap and start making the wrappers. We poke a hole in the dough ball and end up with a doughnut. We cut the doughnut into a snake, and then cut the snake into pieces which are supposed to be evenly sized. Where is my engineer husband when I need him?
Next Sophia demonstrates how to roll out the dough into circles.
Next comes the hard part: filling the wrappers. There is a lot of pressure here because remember how I told you the dumplings are supposed to sit up straight and not be lazy? It has to do with how you pinch the edges closed after filling the wrapper.
We don’t want the filling to fall out or the dumplings to tip over or we will be poor and sick in the new year.
The filled dumplings can be boiled (the original method of cooking), steamed or fried (also delicious). It takes a lot of work to roll, fill and cook the dumplings, so it’s often a family affair.
Dumplings can be eaten as a snack (allow 20 or so per teenager) or paired with smashed cucumber salad and fruit for a meal.
They are usually served with a combination of dark vinegar and soy sauce for dipping, and sometimes ginger or chili pepper is added.