Eating Silver and Gold
There is a popular Chinese saying: “There is nothing more delicious than jiaozi.” Such an accolade no doubt points to the popularity of the simple Chinese dumpling. (Chinese dumplings come in many shapes and sizes but the most common are jiaozi and guotieh. They’re essentially the same dumpling– the only difference is how they’re cooked. See headnote below.)
No one can trace the origins of the dumpling definitively but it’s been around for over 2,500 years. Its evolution may have started when people living in the vicinity of the Yellow River learned to grind wheat into flour, and it became even more widespread when an official decree during the Han Dynasty produced a food item filled with mutton, chilies and medicinal herbs to help the poor get through the cold winter. Today, Chinese dumplings all over the world seem to adhere to one common denominator–a soft, pillowy pouch filled with pork and cabbage.
Chinese dumplings are a must for Chinese (or Lunar) New Year. The Year of the Rat (starting February 7th) is almost upon us and Chinese households across the globe will be making dumplings on New Year’s eve. Like all the foods and dishes eaten during the New Year, dumplings are full of symbolism. Thanks to their resemblance to shoe-shaped gold or silver ingots, they are believed to bring fortune and good luck. SILVER + GOLD = MONEY = PROSPERITY = WEALTH.
In northern China, families usually chop the meat and prepare the filling themselves. This symbolizes the chopping out of bad luck. Dumplings have always been regarded as some of the best food one can eat, so enjoying it at the intersect between the old and new years brings the past to a close and ushers in good luck for the coming year.
Generally, the dumplings are prepared before midnight on the last day of the previous year, a tradition Ellen Chou remembers well. “On New Year’s eve, you have the big feast. Then the women in the family prepare dumplings for New Year’s day breakfast.”
Born in 1942 in China’s Hubei province, Ellen fled to Taiwan with her family when the communists took over in 1948.
As a young girl, Ellen didn’t learn to cook. “My mom never went to school and her dream for me was to have as much education as possible so she chased me out of the kitchen,” she explains. Since Ellen’s mother dominated her kitchen, Ellen learned to make dumplings in school. “It was the first thing we learned in home economics,” she says. “I went to an all-girls school and we’d clear the ping pong table and everyone stood around it making dumplings.”
Ellen was kind enough to share her recipe for guo tieh or pot stickers, just like how she made it way back when, giggling with her schoolmates around the ping-pong table in Taiwan.
Happy Year of the Rat, everyone!!
Ellen Chou’s Pot Stickers
Pot stickers are a favorite Northern Chinese snack, the Chinese version of fast food if you will. That being said, it’s considered peasant food, made with pork and cabbage, two cheap and ubiquitous ingredients. The dumpling can be steamed, boiled or pan-fried. When it is pan-fried, it is called guotieh, literally pot sticker, because the bottom sticks to the pan and forms a crispy crust. When it is steamed, boiled or served in soups, it’s called jiaozi.
Considering how readily available it is frozen or as take-out, why would one even attempt to make pot stickers at home, with dough made from scratch at that! Let me tell you: pot sticker skins really make the dumpling and nothing beats the texture of homemade skins. Store-bought skins, like fresh pasta sheets, are thin and flat. Pot sticker skins should have some heft to them and are thicker in the middle to endure the heat of cooking and protect the filling.
Time: 1 to 2 hours (depending how nimble your fingers are at making the pot stickers)
Makes: about 40
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water
1 pound ground pork (2 cups)
2 cups finely chopped napa cabbage (half a medium cabbage)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (about 1/2-inch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons plus pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 cup water. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it starts to come together, adding more water if necessary. With your hands, form dough into a rough ball. You want the dough to be pliable but not stick to your fingers. Sprinkle a little more flour if dough is too wet. The dough won’t feel smooth at this point. Set the dough ball in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rest while you make the filling.
Place cabbage in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well. Taking a handful of vegetables at a time, squeeze water out. Or wrap cabbage in batches in a cheesecloth or non-terry towel and wring dry.
In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix well with chopsticks or a set of clean hands. Set aside.
Make the wrappers. Knead dough for several minutes until it is smooth all over. Divide it into 4 balls. Knead each ball individually for about 30 seconds. Roll each portion into a log about 5-inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. Pinch off 9 or 10 even walnut-sized pieces. Dust with flour as needed.
Roll each piece into a ball and flatten into a disc between your palms. Place flattened disc on a well-floured surface. Starting at the bottom edge of the disc, use a Chinese rolling pin* and roll from the outside of the circle in. Use your right hand to roll the pin as your left hand turns the disc anti-clockwise. So the sequence goes: roll, turn, roll, turn. Roll each disc into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Don’t worry about making a perfect circle. Ideally, the wrapper will be thicker in the middle than on the edges.
Spoon about 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over filling to form a half-moon pocket and pinch shut**.
Repeat until all the dough or filling is used up. Set pot sticker down firmly on a parchment-lined tray seam-side up so that dumpling sits flat.
Heat an (8- to 10-inch) non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the bottom of pan to coat evenly. Place about a dozen dumplings in a single layer seam-side up in the skillet and brown for 1 minute.
Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to the pan, depending on its size. Cover immediately and steam 9 to 10 minutes, until all the water evaporates. The bottom of the pot stickers should be golden brown and crisp but not burned. Remove pot stickers with a spatula and serve on a plate with bottom side up. Serve with dipping sauce (recipe below).
*Chinese rolling pins are skinnier and don’t have handles. They’re available in Asian markets, or get a 3/4-inch wooden dowel from a hardware store.
**The simplest way to seal the dumplings is to pinch the edges shut so that you have a flat seam. It will look like a turnover. If you are good at crimping, you can create a “pleated” edge. Pinch the middle of pocket to seal. Starting from the outer right edge of the back flap of wrapper, make 3 pleats facing the outer edge while working your way toward the middle. Repeat on the left and continue pressing edges together until entire curve is sealed.
-To keep or make ahead, freeze pot stickers in a single layer on a tray until firm (about 15 minutes will do) so they don’t stick to each other when placed in a plastic bag. Freeze for up to a month. Do not defrost before cooking. Simply increase cooking time to 15 minutes.
-To reheat cooked pot stickers, swirl 1 tablespoon oil in the bottom of pan. Set pot stickers and pour in 2 tablespoons water, cover and steam until heated through.
-Since weather can affect how dough comes together, the ratio of flour to water for the dough may not be 2 to 1 as suggested. Use your judgment to determine whether the mixture is too wet or dry and add flour or water as needed.
Soy-Ginger Dipping Sauce
Makes: 1/2 cup
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (about 3/4-inch)
1/4 teaspoon chili sauce, or to taste
1 clove garlic, smashed
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. This will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for several days.