Introduction to Chinese Dumplings
Dumplings are a very important dish in Chinese cuisine, whose influence in Chinese culture can never be overlooked or underestimated. Dumplings are also part of Japanese, Korean, and even Russian cuisines (although the way they look and taste is totally different).
Dumplings carry a very special meaning for Chinese people all over the World. Most Chinese families gather together during Chinese New Year Eve celebrations to prepare dumplings. When Chinese people have guests for dinner, they prepare dumplings to warmly welcome their guests. Here, in UK, when Chinese friends gather for dinner, it is very common to prepare dumplings together: while a few of us prepare the pastries, the others are rolling them up.
And me, I never forget the time I was there trying to help my parents and grandparents preparing dumplings, I was only five probably, trying to hold the rolling pin to make the pastry, and hated that my left and right hands did not coordinate as they should. So, on top of every cultural facts, it really is a family thing. I remember that after I became an 'expert' on making the pastry, my mum would call all of us come to the kitchen to help after she had prepared the fillings and flour dough already; then, we would all sit around the table chatting and making dumplings.
Here is a basic description of a dumpling: it is a round flour made pastry wrap with fillings inside. Fillings can be made of meat or vegetables, or seafood, (hundreds of different fillings); then, they can be boiled in water, light fried with oil, or steamed. However, the most popular form of preparation in China is to boil them. Different ways of cooking normally require a little bit different ways of preparing the dough.
Dumplings can be easily found in most restaurants in the North East of China, and there are many restaurants specialized on dumplings.
The Pastry Sheet
Nowadays, you can get prepared dumpling pastry sheets in Chinese supermarkets. These normally come frozen, and contain around 30 sheets per pack. They is very convenient if you are short of time. Frozen pastry sheets are good to use, but since they are machine-made, the thickness in the centre and edges of each pastry is the same, where traditionally it is better if the centre of the pastry is slightly thicker and the edge is thinner. And they come in slightly bigger sizes than those made at home.
Here is how to make the pastry sheet from scratch.
Apart from the flour and a bigger size board, you need a nice rolling pin. It is commonly made from wood, around 30cm long, and 2-3 cm diameter (the middle bit is a bit thicker than the two ends). Modern rolling pins can be made of marble as well; marble is heavier, which facilitates the rolling of the pin.
I prefer to prepare the dough first before preparing the fillings. Then, the dough can be left for 20 minutes while you are preparing the other things.
I normally use plain flour, which can be found in any supermarket. If I am expecting guests, however, I would use a different kind of flour. Dumplings are supposed to be white (almost transparent), and the dumplings made of plain flour normally come out dark after boiling. Furthermore, the dough made from plain flour has a tendency to get softer after a while; hence, if you are cooking for many people, you will have to prepare quite a few dumplings, and the dough you will end up using for preparing the last few ones could be too soft.
When we have guests at home, I would buy the flour in Chinese supermarket, actually, now in some Chinese supermarket you can find 'special dumpling flour'. It is more expensive than the alternatives, but then, you don't have to worry about the colour and softness.
If dumplings are the main dish on the table, I normally use four cups of flour for three people, which amounts to 15-20 dumplings per person). However, if you have other dishes to accompany the meal, then the amount of flour can be reduced.
Here are the steps you need to follow in order to make the dough:
- As for the proportion of flour and water, I normally put three cups of flour with 1 cup of water, or 4 cups of flour with 1 cup and a quarter of water. If I use plain flour, I would add a little spoon full of salt (this is useful especially when the dough gets softer). Keep the dough it in the mix bowl. Traditionally, you can use a slightly wet kitchen cloth to cover the dough, allow it to sit for a while.
- I normally divide the dough into 2 or 3 portions, which facilitates the preparation.
- Make sure you have dusted enough flour on the board so that the dough does not get stuck to the board; then, knead the dough into a long slender tube
- Divide them again into smaller pieces. I prefer use a knife to chop it into pieces, as it is easier to measure the pieces evenly. Many experienced people, however, can do it by hand.
- Press each piece on the board, and make it flat.
- Spread a pinch of dry flour on the board, then place the small dough on the top. The easiest way to do it is just to roll with the rolling pin with both hands, then stop time to time for changing direction. What we normally do, however, it to use the right hand to use the rolling pin and use the left hand to fold the edges of the pastry. Every time when you push the rolling pin up, stop in the middle.
Just couple of reminders. First, do not get frustrated if the pastry sheet does not have a perfect round shape. The dumplings will look beautiful in the end. Second, make sure you have dusted enough flour at button of each sheet, otherwise, they will get stuck together.
The common dumpling fillings in Northeast are either pork, beef, lamb, or prawns, which are normally combined with different vegetables. Of course, there are also many vegetarian choices. Popular vegetables that go well with beef, lamb or prawns are spring onions (you can use leeks as an alternative), celery, or 'Jiu Cai'. The latter are called 'garlic chives' in English (however, there are slight differences between the Jiu Cai and chives in mainland China).
The dumpling filling I am going to explain next is a mix of minced beef and celery.
The basic method of making the fillings is very simple: just mix the minced meat and vegetables together with the seasonings, and try to prevent the filling from getting too much liquid from the seasonings and vegetables (otherwise it will be too difficult to fold the dumplings up later).
Here are the ingredients:
- Beef mince.
- Spring onion (or leeks).
- Salt, cooking wine, light soya sauce, sesame oil, five (or thirteen) spices (or flavoured oil).
- Chop the celery, leeks and ginger into very small pieces.
- Put the mince and chopped celery, leek and ginger all together into a mix bowl.
- Add salt, 1 table spoon of cooking wine, 1 table spoon of light soy sauce, 1 tea spoon of spicy powder, 1 table spoon of sesame oil, and 3-5 table spoons of oil or flavored oil.
Rolling the Dumplings
The classic shape of a Chinese dumpling is similar to a small sailing boat.
- Place one dumpling pastry sheet flat on your hand.
- Put a tea spoon of the filling in the middle of the pastry sheet. The amount of filling depends on the size of the pastry sheet. I normally use a serving knife for this, but I also found that a long stirring spoon for tall cappuccino can also come handy.
- Fold the two sides together, nip them tightly.
- Use your index finger to push the edge on the right end in, nip it together with the front edge.
- Push the remaining part on the right side from the back towards the front, then nip it together with the front edge. Now, the back would show a nice fold.
- Swap the dumpling to your other hand, then do the same with the left hand side.
However, the most important part is not whether the folding is beautiful; what really matters is whether the edges have been tightly nipped up, so that the dumpling won't break during boiling (or frying).
If you want to go the easy way, just fold up the two sides tightly whichever way you like.
Put the prepared dumplings on a plate or on any clean surface (traditionally, we use a bamboo board). The material is not important, but make sure that you dust some flour on the surface before placing the dumplings on to prevent the dumplings from getting stuck to the surface. Since the flour could be softer if the dumplings are left for a long while, (especially now with the liquid coming out from the fillings), get ready to cook them as soon as you get enough of them to boil or fry.
Boiling and Serving
As already mentioned, Chinese dumplings can be boiled, steamed, or light fried. In this recipe we follow the traditional method, namely to boil the dumplings in water.
- Fill in a deep saucepan with water, and bring the water to boil.
- Once the water is boiling, start putting the prepared dumplings into the water. Don't put too many within one go, otherwise they will get all stuck together, and will also take longer to boil. (The idea is not to leave the dumplings in the water too long, so only put dumplings in when the water is boiling, and take them out as soon as they are done). While doing this, use a skimmer to stir the dumplings from the bottom of the saucepan up.
- Sprinkle some salt into the water (this could prevent the dumplings from getting stuck together).
- Stir the dumplings time to time.
- When the water boils again, pour in a cup of cold water to cool it down, then allow it to boil again. If you are making meat dumplings, then repeat this step. If you are making vegetable dumplings, you can turn off the fire, remove the dumplings from the saucepan and serve them on a plate using the skimmer.
Traditionally, the dumplings are served with a dip (a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar). In most restaurants in North East China, you can see a small bottle of light soya sauce and rice vinegar on each table.
Here is the delicate 'dip recipe' we commonly prepare at home. Mix light soya sauce, rice vinegar, a little pinch of white sugar, sesame oil, 'minced' garlic and chili oil (optional).Chinese Dumplings: What They Mean in Chinese Culture and How to Make Them
Shibin Zhang writes about Chinese food and Chinese culture. She specialises in the cuisine of North East China and in Islamic Chinese cuisine. On her website you can find many other articles about Chinese cuisine and culture.