When I visited China earlier this year, dumplings were everywhere. We ate them from street vendors and at restaurants and the fillings varied widely. A lot of the food we ate in China simply tasted better than the American imports I’ve found since we returned. So I was excited to attend a dumpling making class earlier this week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sponsored by its Confucius Institute. The Institute is a non-profit institution that promotes and teaches Chinese culture in Nebraska. This was its first cooking class, though it has another one planned for this fall.
Staff members from the Institute taught the class, and Associate Director Rachel Zeng, above right, led us into the world of dumpling making. Here she and a helper mixed the fillings for the dumplings we made. On the left is pork and cabbage and on the right, beef and celery. Both included the traditional Chinese Five Spice blend, which usually includes equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. If you like ginger, you can add that too. She also added a fair amount of salt and soy sauce, though be careful on the salt — its easy to overdo it.
Zeng said you have to make sure the dumpling filling is a good mixture of meat to vegetables. She also added some vegetable oil and dark sesame oil to the mix to make sure it wasn’t too dry. There are endless ways to fill the dumplings, and Zeng made some suggestions: shrimp or tofu instead of meat, carrots instead of cabbage, cooking wine or vinegar mixed with soy sauce, fresh spices like chopped cilantro along with the five spice blend. Basically, make the filling suited to whatever flavors you like best.
Next we learned how to hand-roll the wrappers for dumplings. These small, almost transparent round wrappers are widely available frozen in Asian markets, but it was fun to see how they’re made traditionally from scratch.
First the cook cut the dough, made from a simple recipe that used flour, water and salt, and kneaded it lightly. Then she formed it into the shape of a huge doughnut, cut it and rolled it into a thin stick which she chopped into coin sized pieces of dough. This all happened very fast, so pardon the blurred photos.
She passed the coins to her assistant, who first pressed them flat with the heel of her palm, then quickly rolled them out using a tiny rolling pin, turning and rolling around the edges of the dough. Then she tossed the wrappers to the group, who clumsily learned how to turn them into dumplings.
During the rolling, one of the women told us that in China, if you can roll a dumpling wrapper to be perfectly round, it’s a sign you will be a good wife. (Note: I am not to be a good wife. I was too scared to even try rolling a wrapper.)
The wrapping is trickier than it looks. The scoop of filling has to be small, but not too small. The edges have to be sealed tightly, dough to dough, or else they’ll fall apart when they’re cooked.
The perfect dumpling, above. If you’re using store bought wrappers, they’re dry and you should wet the edges with a bit of water to make sure they stay shut.
Because time was limited in the class, we learned to fry and steam dumplings using some store bought examples. Above, store bought dumplings set to fry. Below, more store bought dumplings in a steamer.
Zeng told the class that most Americans prefer fried dumplings. But the steamed and boiled dumplings were closer to what I ate in China, save for some fried dumplings filled with a much soupier meat mixture I ate in Shanghai. (Man, those were delicious.)
The finished boiled dumplings were fantastic. Soft on the outside with a burst of flavor inside. We mixed our own sauces using soy sauce, Chinese vinegar, chili oil, sriracha and ginger, among other ingredients.
Using the handout we got in the class, I came up with a version of how you can make Chinese dumplings at home. Of course, all the fillings are variable. I know the recipe and instructions are long, but trust me, doing this from scratch is so much better. Email me with questions: sarah.bakerhansen(at)owh.com.
Adapted from the Confucius Institute, UNL
Making the Filling
2 cups finely chopped vegetables of your choice (cabbage, carrots, celery or whatever vegetable you choose)
1 pound pork, beef, shrimp or tofu, or you can use just vegetables
2 tbsp finely chopped green onions
2 tbsp finely chopped ginger
sesame or vegetable oil, enough to keep the mixture moist
You can season the mixture with a wide variety of flavorings, including salt, soy sauce, cooking wine, white vinegar, sesame oil, chicken stock, five spice powder, red chili oil, small dried shrimp, cilantro — whatever you might like. Season the meat and vegetable mixture to taste. Make sure the meat and vegetables are thoroughly mixed.
You can buy the frozen, pre-made dumpling wrappers at most Asian grocery stores. If you want to try making them yourself, I found a recipe via chow.com. The one we got in class was too vague for me to share.
Making the wrappers
This recipe makes about 32 wrappers.
10 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
About 3/4 cup just-boiled water (see Note)
To prepare the dough in a food processor, put the flour in the work bowl. With the machine running, add 3/4 cup of water in a steady stream through the feed tube. As soon as all the water has been added, stop the machine and check the dough. It should look rough and feel soft but firm enough to hold its shape when pinched. If necessary, add water by the teaspoon or flour by the tablespoon. When satisfied, run the machine for another 5 to 10 seconds to further knead and form a ball around the blade. Avoid overworking the dough.
Alternatively, make the dough by hand. Put a bowl atop a kitchen towel to prevent it from slipping while you work. Put the flour in the bowl and make a well in the center. Use a wooden spoon or bamboo rice paddle to stir the flour while you add 3/4 cup water in a steady stream. Aim to evenly moisten the flour. It is okay to pause to stir or add water—it is hard to simultaneously do both actions. When all the water has been added, you will have lots of lumpy bits. Knead the dough in the bowl (it is not terribly hot) to bring all the lumps into one mass; if the dough does not come together easily, add water by the teaspoon.
Regardless of the mixing method, transfer the dough and any bits to a work surface; flour your work surface only if necessary, and then sparingly. Knead the dough (it is not hot) with the heel of your hand for about 30 seconds for machine-made dough, or about 2 minutes for handmade dough. The result should be nearly smooth and somewhat elastic; press on the dough; it should slowly bounce back, with a light impression of your finger remaining. Place the dough in a zip-top plastic bag and seal tightly closed, expelling excess air. Set aside to rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours. The dough will steam up the plastic bag and become earlobe soft, which makes wrappers easy to work with.
After resting, the dough can be used right away to form the wrappers. Or, refrigerate it overnight and returned it to room temperature before using.
Note: Recipes for hot-water dough often call for boiling water to hydrate the dry ingredients, but I find that practice too dangerous and prefer to let the water rest first. For the just-boiled water, half-fill a kettle or saucepan with water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat and after the bubbling action subsides, 30 to 90 seconds (depending on the heating vessel), pour the amount needed into a glass measuring cup and use for making the dough. I typically wait no more than 2 minutes after boiling to use the water.
Rolling the dough
Place the dough on a floured work surface and cut it into four large chunks. Lightly knead each chunk into a ball and then roll each one into a long stick. Cut the stick into small coins of dough and lightly flour the coins. With a small rolling pin, roll the coins from the center to the edge, turning as you roll. Stack the wrappers with corn starch in between to prevent sticking.
Filling and wrapping the dumplings
With a teaspoon, scoop a small amount of filling and place it on the wrapper. Fold and pinch the wrapper from the middle to the two outer sides. Put the pinched side on the forefinger, and clasp the hands to pinch it hard. Place the dumplings on a paper towel-covered baking tray.
To Boil Dumplings:
Heat a wok or deep pot filled with water over high heat. Add the dumplings one by one and watch until the water boils. When it does, add 1/4 tbsp of water. Repeat this process twice more when the water comes to a boil. Turn off the heat and remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon.
To Fry Dumplings:
Heat a nonstock pan or wok over high and add 1 tbsp cooking oil for every ten dumplings in the pan. Lower the heat and place the dumplings flat side down around the pan. Add water to the pan until the dumplings are half immersed. Cover and heat on medium for one minute, then raise the heat to medium high until all the water has boiled off. Remove the lid and turn out the dumplings. The bottoms should be crispy and golden yellow.
To Steam Dumplings:
Set up a stovetop steamer and boil the water in the bottom level until it is boiling. Place the dumplings around the steamer pot, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Making the sauce:
Add a combination of salt, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil and red chile oil, along with other seasonings of your choice, and place sauce in a small bowl. Alternately, make a larger batch of sauce, if a whole group has the same taste in terms of spice and heat, and scoop the dumplings into the sauce. The dumplings can also be eaten without sauce.