Given our current state of collective solitude, there is very little we can do to stave off anxiety at broken systems but to meditate (not what I’m doing) and build a test-kitchen triage system based on what produce in your fridge is the closest to being overripe, all the while stewing on the flaws of capitalism and how inconceivable exponential growth is outside of theoretical graphs (what I’m doing). Failing both of these options, I promptly get homesick.
The 2020 remedy for this is a video-call home-cooking class with Mama Zhang. While I am yet to learn the science and soul of so many of her traditional home village dishes, our go-to for collaborative family cooking and consumption since the day I could eat solids has been dumplings. Dumpling nights in my tiny New York kitchen with the people I care about are how I stay grounded and focused on the family (blood or choosen) and food at the centre of my heritage. Those of you have been here from Day 1 have been asking me for just as long for the Zhang family recipe, to which I have always said “maybe – some day”. Indeed, we Zhangs and Wangs (Mama’s maiden name) have never written out any recipe – rather internalising by osmosis generation after generation. But, while learning the proper technique for 食饼筒 over video chat with Mama Zhang last week, I raised the question of sharing our dumpling formulation joy with the world in these trying times. She, the keeper of the Zhangs’/Wangs’ secret family recipes, held a secret family WeChat meeting. It was approved. Joy for all.
The 章 Zhangs’ Secret Dumpling Recipe
[to be made to the syrupy vibrato of Teresa Teng’s 月亮代表我的心 The Moon Is My Heart]
This recipe will make about 40 dumplings depending on how much filling you fit into each skin.
If you’re looking for some dumpling-wrapping artistic/technical support, I’m going live over on my Instagram (I know – the Moon is indeed blue) this Friday, April 24, 2020 at 1PM PST // 4PM EST // 9PM BST // 6AM AEST (which will be Saturday, April 25 breakfast dumplings for our AUS/NZ/Asia timezone friends).
Original Filling225g/8oz ground pork (minimum of 20% fat – the higher the fat content, the juicier/soupier the dumpling)
200g/7oz (this is usually a half block) of firm or medium-firm tofu (chopped, drained using paper towels)2 cups Chinese cabbage (shredded – a regular green cabbage is fine, but may not take flavour quite as well)1 cup bok choy (chopped – spinach is fine if you can’t get bok choy)1 cup shiitake mushrooms (finely chopped – you can substitute with cremini or oyster mushrooms, but shiitakes’ earthy flavour is best)1 cup carrots (finely chopped)½ cup bamboo shoots (finely chopped – either whole poached shoot, or sliced ones jarred – preferably without other flavouring)½ cup scallions or green onion (finely chopped)½ cup ginger (roughly chopped – and I mean chunky)½ cup coriander/cilantro (roughly chopped)½ cup of pure sesame oil3 tbsp soy sauce (sub with tamari if gluten-free)2 raw eggs (if you’re using a much higher fat content pork mince – let’s say 40% – just use one egg to start with to assess filling texture)
MZ’s Vegetarian Filling:
*you can also just do 2 raw eggs or 2 scrambled eggs – it just depends on whether the consistency of the mixture is needing more solids or liquids. Always leave the eggs until last so you can make the assessment.
MZ’s Vegan Filling:
If it’s your first time wrapping dumplings, we’d recommend that you buy pre-packaged skins from your local Chinese/Asian market. For a thicker, heartier dumpling, get Northern style or Shanghai style skins. For slightly thinner skins, get Wonton skins or even Japanese gyoza skins. If you can’t get to the store or can’t order them, it’s legit just flour and water. I believe in you. Let’s go:
Traditional Dumpling Wrappers
½ cup water (this is a traditional technicality, so don’t worry about it too much, but generally speaking: use cold water if you plan on making boiled dumplings, and boiling water if you plan on making steamed or pan-fried dumplings)
A pinch of mineral salt (optional – this is down to taste preference)
- Pour your flour into a large mixing bowl (mix in the pinch of salt if you’re using it). Make a well in the centre of the bowl, and start adding your water slowly, while simultaneously mixing with chopsticks. Eventually, there should be no loose flour remaining. If it’s still a little dry, add more water one tablespoon at a time (noting this ratio can vary a little depending on the brand of flour you’re using).
- Knead the dough for around 10 minutes in the bowl.
- Cover your bowl with a moist tea towel and leave it to rest for 10 – 15 minutes.
- Knead again for 2 minutes, after which you’ll have a smooth dough.
- Cover and let the dough rest for another 40-60 minutes (make your filling while you wait). When you check it, it should be soft with some elasticity (kind of similar in resistance to your earlobe, no joke).
- Poke a hole in the centre of the ball of dough and pull it open, running it through your hands until you get a loop. Break it into four pieces, set three aside back inside the bowl, covered with the moist tea towel to avoid them drying out.
- Roll your remaining piece out into a long log (around 3cm/1-1.5in thick) and divide into 10 even pieces. Dust each piece with a bit of flour so they don’t stick to each other.
- Dust your rolling pin and a flat surface with flour.
- Take one piece and flatten it into a disc between your hands, then flour both sides.
- On your floured surface, rotate the disc as you move your rolling pin back and forth (direction is away from your body, then back towards your body). This will evenly roll the dough out into a circle that is slightly thicker in the centre than it is around the edges. This makes sure that your dumplings keep their structural integrity when you cook them. Keep rolling until your disc is around 6 – 7.5cm/2.5 – 3in diameter.
- Repeat until you’ve used up all of your dough.
MZ’s Gluten-Free Dumpling Wrappers
Full disclosure: these gluten-free wrappers are a lot more challenging to work with than the traditional wrappers. So, if you’re a dumpling beginner, don’t be discouraged if the dough is a little too dry, or your dumpling pleats aren’t as pretty, or they fall apart the first time around. I would recommend only boiling or steaming these, as their dough cohesion can be a bit touch and go with so many variables around what brands of flour you’re using, etc.
- Combine the rice flour, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum in a mixing bowl with chopsticks. Add the oil and mix well. Then, add your cold water 1-2 tablespoon at a time until a reasonably firm (but not dry) dough starts to come together.
- Cover the bowl with a moist tea towel and set aside while you make your dumpling filling (see below)
- Once you’re done with your filling, dust a baking sheet or a piece of parchment paper on a flat surface with glutinous rice flour. Roll the dough out into a long log and divide it into four pieces. Set three aside back inside the bowl, covered with the moist tea towel to avoid them drying out.
- Cut your remaining log segment into 10 even pieces. Dust each piece with a bit of flour so they don’t stick to each other.
- As before, roll out the disc until you have a 6 – 7.5cm/2.5 – 3in diameter circle. This gluten-free dough is very fragile so work slowly and carefully. If you like, you can use a cookie cutter or other circular lid to cut off the excess for perfect circles. This does sometimes make it easier to work with when wrapping.
- Cover your finished wrappers with a damp paper towel until you’ve used up all of the dough.
There is no science here – literally just mix all of your ingredients together thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. For all three versions of the filling, just make sure to give your tofu a solid squeeze to expel any remaining fluid before crumbling into the bowl with your hands.
For the eggplant in the Vegan filling, you can either scoop out the flesh of the roasted eggplant straight into your bowl, or (and I like to do this) you can stick the whole thing in a blender so the skin breaks up, before adding to your filling.
I know I said it above, but when I say roughly chopped ginger, I mean roughly chopped ginger – the Zhang recipe signature gives you crunchy gingery eye-water all the way through. Trust me.
This is a tricky one to put in writing, so you’re just going to have to tune into my Live on Friday to watch the Zhang wrapping method. If you’re using store-bought dumpling wrappers, have a small dish of water on hand to seal the edges of your dumplings. If you’re using fresh wrappers made as above, you don’t need water to seal the edges because they’re not as dry.
- Hold out your non-dominant hand, palm up, and place a dumpling wrapper on it.
- Spoon some filling into the centre. If you are a beginner, start with one teaspoon until you get the hang of pleating around the filling. If you’re well-seasoned, you can stuff it up to one heaped tablespoon.
- If you’re using store-bought wrappers, take some water on your dominant hand’s index finger, and run it around the edge of your wrapper. If you’re using fresh wrappers, no need.
- Take the bottom edge of your wrapper that is closest to your body, and fold it up and over so you have a semi-circle. Pinch the two edges together and bring it towards you to stand, like a taco.
- Take the semi-circle in both hands, using your dominant hand’s pinky finger to support underneath.
- Pick up a section of the edge furthest away from you (beside the part where you’ve already pinched the two edges together) with your thumb and forefinger (doesn’t matter which side) and pull it toward the already-pinched section. Pinch to seal. This is a pleat. Continue this on one side – pulling the back edge up to meet previous pleat and pinching to seal – until that half of the dumpling is sealed completely. Repeat on the other side, and you have yourself a Zhang dumpling.
- To steam, line a bamboo steamer basket with cabbage leaves (poke holes in the leaves) and bring a wok or saucepan of water to a boil. You can also use a rice cooker with a steam tray (make sure you oil the tray). It usually takes 15-20 minutes to steam dumplings, depending on the apparatus used. Just touch the surface of one of the dumplings at the 15-minute mark to check if it’s a little gummy/tacky (which means it’s done).
- If you’re confident in the sturdiness of your wrapping skills (and we’d also only really recommend this for the traditional pork dumplings with traditional wrappers as they hold themselves together on the inside), you can boil them for 3-4 minutes in a pot of water. Don’t pack the pot with too many dumplings – keep it to about 8 at a time.
- Our favourite is pan-frying: heat up a wok/non-stick pan with your choice of oil (refined olive oil, canola oil or peanut oil are usually the easiest to cook with – but sesame oil is the tastiest). Place the dumplings in a circle and let them sit until the bottoms are browned to your liking. Add a splash of water and cover the pan to let them steam. Same thing as before – check if the surface of the dumpling is a little gummy.
For the traditional dumplings, always crack one dumpling open to make sure your pork is cooked all the way through.
The eating experience is really each to their own as long as it lives within the bounds of: soy sauce, Chiang Kiang Vinegar, Lao Gan Ma and sesame oil. Experiment with permutations. Develop a dumpling consumption signature. I, for one, love dumplings with a half a teaspoon of vinegar poured into it after I’ve taken my first bite. Papa Zhang does the same, but with soy sauce. My brother loves to have a small dish of soy sauce and a small dish of vinegar in front of him, dipping back and forth until he finds his pH7. My boyfriend makes a concoction of soy sauce and sesame oil with fresh red chilis which sits in the fridge while dumplings are under construction, and is then poured over his bowl of dumplings as soon as they’re off the heat. My cousins heap on Lao Gan Ma by the spoonful. Mama Zhang is categorically offended by any additional seasonings distracting from the dumpling formulation itself.