They say childhood memories can be the strongest memories.
The last time I made dumplings (jiaozi) from scratch was 20 years ago. Yet, when I began to make dumplings last week, I began to remember the scenes of our extended family and friends gathered around the large round dining table, surrounded by flour, dough, and general chatter.
Back in those days, we always made dumpling wrappers by hand. I didn’t even think we could buy wrappers. This was in the days before a supermarket (a proper Western-style supermarket) had opened up in our city, and there were still many, many, many bikes and barely any cars. Whatever we needed came from street vendors, little shops along the road, and the wet markets.
Dumplings were a group effort. Some made the filling – rich with the smell of garlic chives and rice wine, others kneaded the dough and cut it into small blobs. Then, a production line was formed: two or three people turned the blobs of dough into wrappers using those small rolling pins, and as soon as they were rolled out, another two or three people turned them into dumplings.
Soon, rows of neat dumplings would appear in the centre of the table. Plump, supple, prettily pleated into small crescent shapes.
Halfway through this production cycle, we would stop, boil some freshly made dumplings, and slurp them down with some soy and vinegar. Refreshed, we would return to the second half of our production line.
As children, we of course watched, chattered, played with dough, and generally got under the adults’ feet (literally!). After pestering our parents, we were sometimes given a small lump of dough, and a rolling pin, and were allowed to roll out wrappers. My first few attempts were, well, rustic looking to say the least. The blob of dough grew unexpected horns, tails, legs, and became a myriad of many-sided shapes – any shape except a circle.
When I tried to make dumplings, my childish greed always got the better of me. I over-filled the dumplings and the filling would escape between poorly sealed cracks.
The adults humoured us, and somehow fixed up those wrappers or dumplings.
Fast forward to Sydney.
I was a production line of one. But the chatter, noises, smells, and most of all the small, deft movements of the dumpling makers stayed with me while I made the 50-odd dumplings for our Chinese new year feast. And yes, I added garlic chives to the filling. This time, my wrappers had fewer horns, tails and legs. And the fillings stayed in the wrappers. I’ve joined the adults’ table, figuratively speaking.
(After half an hour, I realised I had pleated some dumplings so they looked like Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao / soup dumplings – and got between 15 and 20 pleats in each ‘bun’! Authentic? Probably not. Fun? Yes, oh yes.)
Here’s the recipe I used, with notes at the end about various stages of the process. When I served my own dumplings to guests at the Chinese new year feast, we agreed very few things beat a home made dumpling (except maybe a home made xiao long bao – or a momofuku pork bun).
4 cups dumpling flour (this is high quality, high gluten wheat flour. pasta flour or bread flour are probably good substitutes. plain or all purpose flour should also be ok)
1.5-2 cups boiling water (if you are going by weight, use about one part water to two parts flour)
extra flour for the bench
1. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre of the flour.
2. Pour in 1.5 cups of boiling water. use a whisk or chopsticks, stir the flour and water together until it forms a loose dough.
3. when the dough is soft enough to touch, form the dough into a ball. Place the ball on the bench and knead for about 10-15 minutes (you may need to knead for longer if you are using all purpose or plain flour), or until the dough is becoming supple.
4. let the dough rest for 10-15 minutes, and knead again for a couple of minutes. the dough should be much more stretchy, soft and supple – and fun to play with.
5. take half of the dough, roll it into a thick rope. cut the rope into small blobs. the blobs can be anywhere between 1cm and 2.5cm in diameter. cover the blobs with a tea towel, and do the same with the other half of the dough.
The larger the blob, the larger the dumplings. The smaller the blob, the smaller the dumplings and the longer it will take to wrap all the dumplings. I went for small and cute – and extremely time consuming.
6. roll out the blobs into wrappers (see notes below).
Pork and garlic chives dumpling
2 leaves of wombok
1 bunch garlic chives
200g ground pork (fattier mince is better)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp ginger, finely grated
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2-3 tbsp cornflour (corn starch) or rice flour
two parts light soy sauce
one part black rice vinegar
optional: chilli oil, finely sliced shallots (scallions), finely minced garlic – to taste.
1. finely chop the wombok and garlic chives. add to a medium sized mixing bowl with pork, garlic, and ginger. mix well.
2. add all other ingredients except the cornflour. mix well. if you can see liquid on the bottom of the bowl, add a little cornflour.
3. make the dumplings! (see notes below)
4. cook (see notes below), and serve with dipping sauce.
Notes on dumpling making
Rolling the wrapper: many Chinese kitchens have small rolling pins that taper towards the edges. These are very handy for making dumpling wrappers, as they are light and easily moves around the small quantities of dough.
there are easy and advanced ways of making wrappers.
Super easy: roll out the whole piece of dough until it is very thin. Cut out rounds using cookie cutters.
Advanced: this is what I watched adults do as a child.
- flatten the dough in the palm of your hands. this makes it easier to roll out.
- with your less dextrous hand (I’m right handed, so I use my left hand), hold the circle so your thumb is at the centre of the circle; with your other hand, roll the rolling pin onto the dough until it reaches your thumb, and roll it out again. apply pressure to the dough on the way in, and not on the way out. (this is easy with a light, wooden rolling pin as it has little inherent weight)
- turn the dough/circle one quarter of the way, clockwise or anti clockwise, and roll out the dough as before. repeat until you get a flat wrapper, which is slightly raised in the middle and thinner on the outside.
The differing thickness ensures the centre of the dumpling will not break easily, and the edges will not be too thick and doughy.
Dumpling folding: I’m terrible at explaining how to fold a dumpling. The important thing is, the dumpling will still be delicious even with the most basic (or inauthentic) folds. So, forge ahead and do your own thing, or see one of the many good tutorials on the internet (links at end of post).
Basically, imagine the wrapper is a piece of cloth, and the filling is a ball that will be covered by the cloth. And make the edge pretty. Here’s what I did:
- put a small blog of filling in the middle of the wrapper.
- bring opposite sides of the wrapper together, and pinch them together.
- make a little pleat close to the pinched-together centre, and as you make the pleat, press a bit of the wrapper from the opposite side into the pleat. keep going until one side of the dumpling is completely sealed.
- repeat on the other side. since you are pleating down one half of the wrapper, the finished dumpling should be slightly crescent shaped.
Cooking notes: My favourite method is fry-and-steam (as Mr Gander says, “fream”).
- pre-heat a generous splash of neutral flavoured oil (peanut or rice bran) in a frying pan.
- place the dumplings into the pan, don’t allow the edges to touch.
- when the bottoms of the dumplings are brown and beginning to crisp, pour in a small amount of hot water into the frying pan – no more than 1/4 of the height of the dumpling. The heat in the frying pan will turn the hot water into steam.
- for fresh dumplings, cook the dumplings in an open pan for 3-4 minutes (and you may need to top up the water), or close the lid of the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes. for frozen dumplings, extend the cooking times by about 2 minutes.
Test a dumpling – the filling should be tongue-burningly hot all the way through.
Dumpling folding tutorials
Tiny Urban Kitchen, one way to fold a pleated crescent
Appetite for China, another way to fold the pleated crescent
Andrea Nguyen’s video tutorial
Feed the Dragon’s video tutorial