We all could use a little luck. And when good fortune comes folded into something delicious to eat, that's simply a bonus. Take, for example, the dumpling, an auspicious offering served for Chinese New Year, which is Sunday. The small packets of pork, seafood, beef or vegetables spiked with sesame oil and soy sauce represent wealth owing to a shape that mimics an ancient Chinese ingot, or coin. It's not unlike other celebrations which lean heavily on symbolic food to kick off the new year right. Black-eyed peas represent prosperity in the American South, which is why Hoppin' John is a traditional New Year's Day dish. In Germany and Ireland, cabbage is served, its green color reminiscent of money (wealth). Pomegranates are eaten in Turkey and other Mediterranean countries to encourage abundance and fertility.
It is a tradition in many Chinese — and Chinese-American — homes to gather the family to make labor-intensive dumplings as a group, even hiding a coin in one of the them. The story goes that the person who gets the dumpling with the coin inside will have good luck for the year, similar to the wee plastic baby hiding in a Mardi Gras' king cake (see Page 5E).
"We call it a dumpling party," says Manatee County food writer and blogger Jaden Hair, whose cookbook Steamy Kitchen's Healthy Asian Favorites (Ten Speed Press) has just been published. She shares recipes, stories of her growing farm plus beautiful food photography at Steamykitchen.com. Her mother taught her how to make dumplings, and now she always has a freezer full, though her family never opted for the hidden coin trick for their New Year celebration.
"Dumplings are my fast food," she says. "Instead of mac and cheese, we have dumplings. It's healthy food."
Dumplings are best eaten soon after being cooked, and tradition holds that they are enjoyed just after midnight on the first night of the nearly two-week festival. Though many families take it easy on New Year's Day, that's Hair's favorite time to cook the specialties of the holiday.
"It's a day when all my friends and family can get together to cook," she says.
Around the United States, Chinese New Year parades are held in various cities, including the nation's largest celebration in San Francisco, which draws about 3 million spectators to watch in person and on TV. One of the highlights is a 200-foot dragon made of colorful cloth with a rattan and bamboo skeleton snaking along the parade route.
Speaking of snakes — and who isn't these days with all of the talk of pythons in the Everglades? — 2013 is the Year of Snake. The snake is the sixth sign in the Chinese Zodiac. I am not sure I would be happy to see a snake slithering through my house, but ancient Chinese wisdom touts this as a good omen because it means the family won't starve.
There are other symbolic foods eaten during Chinese New Year celebrations including long noodles (long life) and whole fish (abundance), but today we are trying our hand at homemade dumplings. (Hair warns that the noodles should never be broken before cooking, which would risk the possibility of shaving off a few years.)
If you've ever enjoyed a Sunday dim sum brunch, you'll know that there are a multitude of shapes and fillings for dumplings. Other Asian cuisines have their own version of dumplings with a variety of ways to cook them. In fact, the Chinese potsticker is the same as Japanese gyoza, a popular appetizer at many restaurants that serve Thai food and sushi.
In north China, the traditional New Year dumpling is the simple jiaozi, usually filled with pork and cabbage and called yuanbao when they are eaten for the celebration. That's the name of the ancient Chinese ingot. I simplified the filling, using a recipe adapted from Saveur magazine, that omits the cabbage. Pork and Scallions Dumplings are flecked with finely minced green onion.
For a dumpling-making novice, tackling homemade dough for the wrappers is daunting. I am lousy at pie crusts so I figured I would not be able to roll out the paper-thin disks needed for Chinese dumplings. I bought the dumpling wrappers at Cho Lon Oriental Market in St. Petersburg (5944 34th St. N; (727) 527-7511). At $1.69 for a pound — about 50 3 1/2-inch round wrappers — it was a time-saver I couldn't resist.
Do not use the square wonton wrappers stocked in the produce section at grocery stores. These wrappers have egg in them and will cook differently. Chinese dumpling wrappers are wheat-based with no egg and when they are steamed or boiled, they turn translucent. Wonton wrappers act more like pastry, puffing up and concealing what's inside.
"That's the one consistent thing about Chinese dumplings. The wrappers," Hair says. The wonton wrappers turn the dumplings into something more akin to ravioli. "They are like pasta."
The biggest trick with making dumplings is figuring out how to fold and seal them. For fried potstickers, which I made with the same pork-and-scallion filling, I folded the wrappers around about 1 tablespoon of filling and pinched the edges to seal, making a half-moon. (Dip your forefinger in tepid water and run it around the edge of the wrapper to make it sticky.) You can get fancy, but it's more difficult to get an even browning if you create a lot of ridges with intricate crimping.
For the steamed dumplings, I tried different sealing techniques after looking at photos in Asian Dumplings by Andrea Ngyuen (Ten Speed Press, 2009) and Hair's Steamy Kitchen's Healthy Asian Favorites. Both gave me something to shoot for, along with tempting recipes to tackle later.
The Internet provided more assistance, including a basic recipe and some helpful instructions from Yumsugar.com. But I hit paydirt with a video at Foodnouveau.com, a Canadian food blog written by Marie Asselin. I ignored her advice to roll out the wrappers to make them thinner because my wrappers seemed plenty thin (and bearing in mind my pie crust issues), but I found her instruction on pleating the wrappers invaluable. You can see the results in the photo accompanying this story. (Go to the website and type in "how to wrap and make dumplings" and you'll find the video and lots of tips.)
The store-bought wrappers themselves are sturdy and pliable and can withstand pulling and pinching. And because they are so inexpensive, I didn't feel too bad if I tore a few. The simple half-moon fold will do as a beginning point.
Another tip is to mix the filling thoroughly so that it almost becomes a paste. I used a spatula to smoosh it all together, but you could also employ a food processor. A bit of cornstarch in the filling firms the mixture as it cooks.
You can make a lot of dumplings at once, placing them on a lightly floured surface. Cover with a damp cloth as you go to prevent drying. They can also be frozen before cooking. Place on a baking sheet and freeze solid, then transfer to a freezer-safe bag, squeezing as much air out as you can. You don't need to thaw before cooking unless you are making potstickers.
Dumplings are mostly boiled or steamed, and I opted for the later, using a double-boiler. Bamboo steamers, readily available at Asian markets like Cho Lon, will allow you make more at a time, but I was experimenting and wanted to use the equipment I had. To keep the wrappers from sticking to the pan, I spritzed the surface with Pam. You could also line the pan with parchment paper and poke some holes in it to allow the steam through.
In 8 to 10 minutes of steaming, they are done. Let them sit for a few minutes — the insides are super hot — then serve with a dipping sauce made mostly of soy sauce and sesame oil.
I used the pork-and-scallions filling and half-moon folding technique to fry potstickers in peanut oil and served them with the same dipping sauce. Lovely, but next time I'll try Hair's potsticker-cooking technique for the brave.
"My family likes them pan fried, crispy," she says. "Once the bottoms are browned, you pour in a ½ cup of water."
Doesn't it splatter?
"Yes, hold the cover of the pot like a shield and quickly pour the water then cover with the lid to let them steam the rest of the way." Keep in mind, she says, you don't have that much oil in the skillet, just enough to coat the bottom.
We ate my steamed pork-and-scallion dumplings for dinner with bowls of white rice, and I deemed the entire experiment a success. I don't know if we'll be eating them as the clock strikes midnight on Chinese New Year, but I do think I've earned the right to say "Gung Hay Fat Choy."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.