Dumplings make people smile. At their core, they are fun, uncomplicated, wonderfully satisfying foods that can be enjoyed with a crowd or savored in solitude. They’re reminders of good times–preparing them for family, noshing on them with friends, or queuing up for them with great anticipation. The individual dough morsels, diminutive pouches, and leaf-wrapped packages contain treasures that never fail to please the palate.
I’ve enjoyed a dumpling-filled life since my youth. One of the first cooking assignments my mother gave me (after cooking rice) was folding wontons. After all, we ate rice daily and frequently ate fried wontons and wontons in soup. My mother was smart to figure out that a precocious ten-year-old was perfect for these elementary but crucial family kitchen duties.
Making batches of 150 to 200 wontons became part of my life, and I rarely thought of it as drudgery. I rather liked folding different shapes and devising new methods to make the work go faster and better. I didn’t always work alone; sometimes my siblings and I challenged one another to see who could fold the prettiest wontons or pleated pot stickers.
We used premade wrappers for Chinese-style dumplings because they were readily available, but there was no such convenience for Vietnamese dumplings. Those were my mother’s specialty, and she prepared hers from
scratch to ensure that our family had the tastes of our homeland. Treats such as bánh ít (Steamed Sticky Rice Dumplings with Shrimp and Pork, page 168) were part of my options for both breakfast and afternoon snacks. We also exchanged gifts of homemade Vietnamese dumplings with family and friends–we all knew they were hard to come by in the United States.
I’ve probably eaten as many Asian dumplings “out” as I have at home. My father regularly piled us into our Buick Estate Wagon and drove over an hour to Chinatown in Los Angeles for Saturday morning dim sum. In the restaurants’ din, I listened carefully for the dumpling ladies’ melodious calls as they made their rounds of the tables: har gow, siu mai, char siu bao–the Cantonese names of perennial favorites (shrimp dumplings, cook-and-sell dumplings, and roasted pork buns, respectively).
During a yearlong fellowship in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, I explored first-rate dim sum houses, experienced for the first time wondrous translucent Chiu Chow Dumplings (page 137) filled with a nutty surf-and-turf mixture, and nibbled on magnificent tiny steamed buns on a trip to Yunnan province in China. I observed professional dumpling cooks whenever possible, and upon returning to the United States, not only did I continue to seek out more Asian dumplings, I also began experimenting with making Chinese and other styles of wrappers from scratch. I asked my mother about Vietnamese dumplings, their fillings, dough, and cooking techniques. It wasn’t long before I realized that there were many similarities among the dumplings enjoyed in Asia.
I studied cookbooks for tips and keys to unlock the world of Asian dumplings. My skills improved through lots of trial-and-error, as there was no publication dedicated to Asian dumplings and cooking classes on the subject were extremely rare. The dough and rolling techniques were hard to figure out at first, and I made plenty of blunders, but my clumsy-looking results always at least tasted good. In fact, over my years of eating and cooking, and especially through the process of polishing the recipes for this book, the most important insights I’ve gained are these:
• Asian dumplings don’t have to look pretty to taste fabulous.
• With few exceptions, there are numerous ways to fold and shape a dumpling.
• Practice is the way to mastery, but you really don’t have to lead a dumpling-obsessed life to learn to make them well.
• You get to eat your mistakes! Enjoy them as much as you do your successes.
Defining Asia and Asian Dumplings
Asia is either huge or humongous, depending on where you draw the defining boundaries. Though the Middle East, Turkey, the Central Asian republics, and most of Russia are, geographically speaking, part of Asia, the recipes in this book come from the three subregions of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. A good number of the dumplings from this vast swathe of territory have Chinese roots, as the Middle Kingdom’s preparations begot many others throughout Asia, and because Cantonese dim sum is popular all over Asia and abroad wherever there are large Asian populations.
But what exactly is a dumpling in the Asian context? Many English speakers categorize Asian-filled pastas, such as pot stickers and wontons, as dumplings, but in actuality the concept of the dumpling does not exist in the Asian culinary framework.
In the same vein as Shu Xi (if many hundreds of years later), acclaimed Chinese cookbook author Irene Kuo described pot stickers, siu mai, wontons, egg rolls, buns, and the like as “dough stuffs” in her classic 1977 work The Key to Chinese Cooking. In the Vietnamese repertoire, such foods belong in the immense category of bánh. Similarly, kuih is the Malay term attached to a large category of savory and sweet cakes, pastries, and dumplings. An Indian vada can be described as a fritter, doughnut, cake, or dumpling.
Ambiguity aside, all dumplings share certain characteristics. They are simple foods with few social pretensions. On occasion they feature meat or seafood, but for the most part, they involve dough made from staple grains, legumes, or vegetables, along with water, salt, and, sometimes, leaven. It is the humble nature of dumplings that steals people’s hearts.
After spending much time pondering, researching, and preparing these foods, I can conclude that for the purposes of this book, Asian dumplings include savory and sweet dishes that are made from balls of dough, or are small parcels of food encased in pastry, dough, batter, or leaves. As you can imagine, there are endless possibilities, and the recipes herein offer a broad sampling to hone your skills and whet your appetite for more.
Why Make Wrappers from Scratch?
Commercially made wonton, pot sticker, egg roll, and spring roll skins are readily available in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets, but there is a marked difference in the end results when you make the wrappers from scratch. Many cooks cannot fathom preparing Asian dumplings without the store-bought skins; but in fact, there are Asian cooks who could not imagine dumplings without homemade ones.
I could not present a pan-Asian collection of dumplings if the focus was on pre-made wrappers because that would narrowly limit recipes to certain Chinese or Chinese-inspired preparations. The world of Asian dumplings is vast, and you can only begin to taste and experience the multitude of dumplings if you venture beyond the skins available on grocery store shelves. Asian dumpling masters, whether professionals or home cooks, take pride in making their own skins and dough. With a little guidance, you can too. Additionally, after you’ve made dumplings from scratch, you will become a more informed dumpling diner, as you’ll have a deeper understanding of what goes into making stupendous ones.
Fresh wrappers are easier to prepare and to work with than people think, as they do not need to be moistened to seal. They also stretch and are very forgiving, yielding to your pulling, pleating, and pinching. Surprisingly, many dough ingredients are available at regular supermarkets, while specialty flours and starches are standard items at Asian markets. You may not always have time to make dumpling wrappers from scratch, which is why there are “Lazy Day Tips” scattered in this book to guide you when you want to substitute store-bought skins.
A Cook’s Guide to This Book
To direct you toward success, the recipes in this book are arranged in a progressive manner. Chapters are organized by dough types to help you focus and develop your skills. A master dough or batter recipe often leads, and recipes with different fillings and cooking methods follow.
The collection begins with dumplings encased in a basic wrapper made of all-purpose flour and water. If you then add egg, leaven or fat, you can create more complex doughs for knockout thin wonton skins, pillowy stuff-ed buns, and flaky pastries. After the section on dumplings based on wheat-flour dough, subsequent chapters focus on dumplings that employ less familiar ingredients, such as wheat starch, tapioca starch, and legumes and tubers. Interspersed among those recipes are a few that use banana leaf as an inedible wrapper that imparts special fragrance and flavor. See “Tips for Success” on page 19 for specific hints on using the recipes.
Use the drawings in this book to help you shape dumplings, but also look online at Asiandumplingtips.com for additional assistance in the form of photos and video. You’ll be able to obtain extra information, pose questions, and share knowledge.
Essential and Handy Equipment
You will need basic kitchen equipment and a few modestly priced additions to prepare the recipes in this book. Sharp knives make fast work of prepping filling ingredients; the Japanese-style santoku and usuba knives are great for producing thin slices and fine cuts. A food processor, an electric mini-chopper, and a spice grinder (or electric coffee grinder reserved for spices) are all great time-savers for making dumplings.
To this battery of equipment, I encourage you to add three essential tools for preparing Asian dumplings: a wooden-dowel rolling pin, a Chinese steamer, and a scale.
Wooden-Dowel Rolling Pin Producing delicate round wrappers for dumplings is faster and much easier with a skinny, lightweight wooden rolling pin. One hand works the pin in short downward strokes while the other hand rotates the dough to create a thin, delicate wrapper. You can’t do this quickly and efficiently with the standard Western rolling pin. Look for the Asian rolling pins at housewares and restaurant supply shops in Asian enclaves. They come in different widths, but one that is about 3/4 inch thick is standard. Or, go to a home improvement or hardware store and have a 12-inch section cut from a 3/4-inch-thick dowel. Before using it, lightly sand the dowel to ensure a smooth surface.
Chinese Steamer There are various ways to improvise the Chinese steaming process–ranging from crisscrossing chopsticks in a wok and balancing a plate of food on top to using recycled tin cans and a Western collapsible metal vegetable steaming basket–but the best tool for cooking dumplings is an actual Chinese steamer. It is an ingenious, well-thought-out piece of equipment that has been indispensable to Asian cooks for eons.
A metal Chinese steamer costs about $50; a bamboo steamer set costs roughly half as much. Years ago, these pieces of equipment were hard to find; but nowadays, they are widely available at Asian markets and cookware shops and online.
Made of aluminum or stainless steel, a multitiered metal steamer comprises a large bottom pan; two sturdy, stackable trays for holding the food to be cooked; and a domed lid. The bottom is lightweight, allowing you to bring lots of water to a boil quickly and keep it going without having to replenish the water often. The trays are perforated, usually with holes the size of peas or smaller, to allow steam to jet upward to cook the food. The lid’s shape allows steam to circulate and condensation to drip down the sides of the steamer, not onto the food cooking on the trays.
I grew up cooking with a metal steamer, and I like them because they are durable and easy to clean. However, they are not as attractive as old-fashioned bamboo steamers, which can be taken directly from stovetop to table. Bamboo steamers are prone to mildew, burning, and falling apart, but those disadvantages can mostly be overcome if you wash and dry them carefully. During steaming, the bamboo absorbs excess moisture so there is no worry about condensation dripping down onto the food. When a bamboo steamer is new, it lends a subtle fragrance to dumplings, too.
Traditionally, one cooks with a bamboo steamer by placing it directly in a wok filled with water, but that method robs the wok of its hard-earned patina. I prefer to use a large (5 or 6-quart) pot or stockpot and place a round, perforated pizza pan or Chinese steamer rack atop. The width of the pot should be the same or a bit bigger than the steamer, and some overhang of the pan or rack is fine so long as the steamer tray covers all the holes. Then I stack the bamboo steamer trays atop for cooking. If you own both metal and bamboo steamers, combine the two: put the
bamboo trays directly on top of the bottom pan of water, if they fit; or put the bamboo trays inside or on top of the metal ones.
In purchasing a metal steamer, select one with 12-inch-wide trays. I prefer stainless steel to aluminum. Ten-inch-wide bamboo steamers work best with most pots; if your setup for boiling water (whether a wok, a stockpot, or the bottom of a metal steamer) is wide enough, go for one with 12-inch-wide steamer trays. If you can individually select the bamboo steamer trays and lid, stack them together to ensure they fit together snugly before purchasing them. The trays should feel weighty, and the lid should be tightly woven. See the Resources section (page 226) for online vendors if you can’t find one nearby.
Scale You may consider weighing ingredients to be restrictive and fussy, but weighing flours and starches will enable you to more consistently produce good dumpling dough. Methods of measuring by volume can yield significant variance, but a scale never lies. Digital scales are highly accurate, affordable, and easy to find at housewares shops. For the dry ingredient weights provided in the recipes, I used the scoop-and-level method to determine the volume equivalents.
Handy Tools and Helpful Gadgets Traditionally, rolling out the wrappers was done entirely by hand with wooden-dowel rolling pins, with old and young pitching in as a group to move things along. But a number of Asian home cooks have recently taken to using a Mexican tortilla press to make round dumpling wrappers. Made from cast aluminum, plastic, or wood, and reasonably priced, tortilla presses can be found at Latino grocers and online.
For the thin signature skins of wontons, siu mai, and egg rolls, a pasta machine yields remarkable results. With minimal skill, you can produce thin, supple skins that best store-bought ones. All that’s required is repeatedly passing the dough through the machine’s smooth metal rollers.
Restaurant supply and housewares shops in Chinatown are among my favorite places to visit. You can find all kinds of nifty, inexpensive tools there. If you venture to one, look for a bamboo dumpling spatula, a terrific gadget for scooping up dumpling fillings and depositing them onto wrappers without sticking. Admittedly, you can use a dinner knife or fork, but the little spatula (about $3) is a neat, old-fashioned tool.
Korean Meat and Vegetable Dumplings
Makes 32 dumplings, serving 4 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a snack or starter
Meat and vegetable dumplings such as these are a standard offering at Korean dumpling and noodle shops. A favorite way to enjoy them is poached in broth for a warming mandu guk soup (page 49), but they are equally fabulous when fried.
However, don’t expect the standard Chinese pot sticker. Korean cooks like to panfry at least two sides of their dumplings for a greater amount of crispy-chewy goodness. When made with extra chewy dough comprised of wheat and sweet rice flour, the dumplings are even tastier. Gun mandu may also be quickly deep-fried in 11/4 inches of oil heated to 350°F for 2 to 3 minutes total; the resulting pebbled golden skin is a delightful reminder of American frozen egg roll snacks.
1 cup bean sprouts (about 3 ounces)
6 ounces firm tofu
2 large scallions (white and pale green parts, reserve dark green part for dipping sauce), finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 large cloves garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, or 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1/2 pound ground beef (chuck preferred) or ground pork (fattier kind preferred), coarsely chopped to loosen
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
11/2 tablespoons Korean, Japanese, or light (regular) soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 pound Basic Dumpling Dough (page 22) or Extra Chewy Dough (page 23)
Canola oil, for panfrying
2/3 cup Korean Dipping Sauce (page 215)
1. To make the filling, blanch the bean sprouts in a saucepan of boiling water for about 20 seconds, or until no longer stiff. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Use your hands to squeeze excess water from the sprouts. Chop the
sprouts into 1/4-inch lengths and put in a bowl.
2. To expel water from the tofu, put it in a cotton (not terry cloth) kitchen towel. Gather the towel up and, standing over a sink, firmly squeeze on the tofu. Unwrap the towel and add the crumbled tofu to the bean sprouts. Use the dull edge of a knife or plastic dough scraper, if needed, to remove the tofu from the towel. Use a fork or spatula to mash any remaining chunks of tofu. Add the scallions, onion, garlic, ginger, and meat to the bean sprouts and tofu. Stir and lightly mash the ingredients so that they start commingling.
3. In a small bowl, stir together the salt, pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Pour the seasonings over the meat and vegetable mixture, then stir and fold the ingredients together. Break up any large chunks of beef and briskly stir to blend the ingredients into a cohesive, thick mixture. To develop the flavors, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight and return to room temperature for dumpling assembly. Makes about 2 cups.
4. Meanwhile, form 16 wrappers from half of the dough. Aim for wrappers that are about 31/4 inches in diameter (see page 24).
5. Before assembling the dumplings, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (If you plan to refrigerate the dumplings for several hours, or freeze them, lightly dust the paper with flour to avoid sticking.) Hold a wrapper in a slightly cupped hand. Scoop up about 1 tablespoon of filling with a bamboo dumpling spatula, dinner knife, or fork and position it slightly off-center toward the upper half of the wrapper, pressing and shaping it into a flat mound and keeping about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of wrapper clear on all sides. Fold, pleat, and press to enclose the filling and create a half-moon, pea pod, or pleated crescent shape (see pages 26 to 29). Place the finished dumpling on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the other wrappers, placing the finished dumplings on the baking sheet at least 1/2 inch apart. Cover the dumplings with a dry towel as you form wrappers from the remaining dough and fill them.
Assembled dumplings can be covered with plastic wrap, refrigerated for several hours, and cooked straight from the refrigerator. Or, freeze them on their baking sheet until hard (about 1 hour), transfer them to a zip-top freezer bag, pressing out excess air before sealing, and keep them frozen for up to 1 month; partially thaw, using your finger to smooth over any cracks that may have formed during freezing, before cooking.
6. To panfry the dumplings, use a medium or large nonstick skillet; if both sizes are handy, cook two batches at the same time. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to film the bottom. Add the dumplings, one at a time, placing them on one of their sides. Don’t let the dumplings touch. Fry the dumplings for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are golden or light brown on the one side. Using chopsticks, and maybe a spatula, too, turn each dumpling to brown another side, 1 to 2 minutes longer.
7. Holding the lid close to the skillet to lessen the dramatic effect of water hitting hot oil, use a kettle or measuring cup to add water to a depth of roughly 1/4 inch; you will use about 1/3 cup water for each skillet. The water will immediately sputter and boil vigorously. Cover the skillet with a lid or aluminum foil, lower the heat to medium, and let the water bubble away until it is mostly gone, 8 to 10 minutes. After 6 to 8 minutes, move the lid or foil so that it is slightly ajar to allow steam to shoot out from underneath. This lessens the drama of condensation dripping down onto the hot oil when you remove the lid.
8. When you hear sizzling noises, remove the lid. Let the dumplings fry for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the bottoms are brown and crisp. (At this point, you can also brown the third side, if you want.) Turn off the heat, wait for the cooking action to cease, and then use a spatula to transfer the dumplings to a serving plate. Display them with their crisp sides facing up.
9. Serve with the dipping sauce in a communal bowl for people to help themselves, or divided up among individual rice bowls or large dipping sauce dishes. Eat these with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon or rice bowl in the other to catch any drips.