In our home, a slender, yellow and orange cookbook, in Chinese, stares out at me from my bookshelf, we just never sat down, rolled up our sleeves, and made them. So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.
Dumplings come in a wide variety, even within the context of one nation’s offerings. Chinese dumplings can come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and fillings. At its most basic, a dumpling is an envelope of dough which contains a filling of protein (meat or fish), vegetables, and spices. By this definition, ravioli and tortellini are simply Italian dumplings, and one might argue that they are, indeed. There are dumplings or something like them in just about every culture in the world, from Georgian khinkali to Singaporean fried dumplings, from Italian ravioli or tortellini to Iraqi kubbeh, from Slovenian cmoki to Japanese gyoza—every culture seems to have their own variation on the general theme of a round dough pocket filled with something and served with a gravy or soup.
What I’m most interested in, however, are the basic Chinese variety, called jiaozi, which is dough filled with minced pork and vegetables (Chinese cabbage, garlic, chives, spring onion). But even Chinese dumplings are also various. These same dumplings can either be steamed (jiaozi) or steamed and then fried (guotie), and we’ll try both preparations, served with chili oil and soy sauce for dipping. Wontons are another type of dumpling served in soup and with more meat in the filling. Even spring rolls, the staple of Western “Chinese” cuisine, are just dumplings deep-fried. Jiaozi dumplings have a rich history and certain traditions associated with them. They are eaten largely at Chinese New Year, though they feature year-round in the north of China.
The story of Bolognese tortellini is that this pocket of dough was designed to look like the bellybutton of the most beautiful woman in Bologna, the model for Botticelli’s Venus. By contrast, jiaozi were designed to resemble currency of Ming dynasty, golden ingots called yuan bao, and eating them is thought to bring financial prosperity. Our recipe and form, therefore, may well date back to the Ming period (1368-1644), although people have surely prepared food cooked in envelopes of dough for far longer. Some Chinese cooks hide a single coin in their batch of dumplings, to bring luck to the one who receives it—provided they notice the coin before losing a tooth or swallowing it! Folklore claims that jiaozi were invented by Zhang Zhongjing (who lived during the Han dynasty, from 150-219), an ancient doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, most famous for his book, Shang Han Lun (“On Cold Damage”) about ways to treat infectious diseases that caused fevers. His version of these proto-dumplings were called “tender ears” (jiao’er) because they were used to treat frostbite. Such origin stories are evocative, and may indeed have something to them. But for our purposes, the dumplings in question here are likely of a Ming era recipe.
The simplest recipe I’ve found for basic dumplings involves two parts. The dough is simply flour, boiling water, cold water, and salt. Those basic elements result in the dough for just about anything for which unleavened dough is required—in this way, Chinese dumpling dough is little different from Italian ravioli. The filling is where we can get creative. A combination of chopped pork, ginger, soy sauce, black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, sherry wine, and sesame oil will do the trick, and I like to throw in some chopped scallions, as well. You can really add anything you like, but the soy sauce, the black and red pepper, garlic powder, sesame oil, and ginger are what give the dish the Chinese “taste” that we associate with it. If you’re too tame in the ingredients, it will still taste good, but it will be less authentic, and less recognizably Chinese. A dipping sauce of rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, a little sugar, red pepper, sesame seeds, and some chopped scallions finishes it off. Assembling the dumplings themselves is easier said than done.
First, you’ve got to get the balance of ingredients to dough size just right. I kept over-filling the dough, and the whole package would explode while steaming. If you under-fill the dough, then you get little flavor, just the tang of the dipping sauce. I find that a little egg painted onto the pinched-shut dumpling package helps to keep it closed and gives it a nice bronze color while cooking, but this is not so authentic. If your dough is too thin, it can spring a leak, and your ingredients tumble out. Too thick and you get a chewy, over-doughy mouth-feel that is no fun.
I can see why Chinese chefs will specialize in dumplings! I tried one batch just steamed and eaten with chopsticks while dipped in soy sauce, while my second batch was likewise steamed, but then quickly fried in wok oil. The just-steamed variety are good, but I prefer the steamed and then quickly fried in wok oil approach for a dipping appetizer. The steamed variety have less of the flavor and bite of the fried version (though they’re certainly healthier), and I felt wanted to be served in a broth, another category known as “soup dumplings,” whereas the crisp fried versions were more satisfying. It’s really up to you, and you can vary the ingredients as much as you like. Fish, crab, and shrimp can stand in for pork, or be combined with pork (you’d be surprised how nice pork plus shellfish is).