Dumplings for prosperity

  • Making dumplings at this time of year is a traditional activity that gives families and communities (particularly women) a chance to bond. PHOTO BY ANDY LEWIS

  • Emma Qi preparing to make four different kinds of dumplings to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit. PHOTO BY ANDY LEWIS

  • Dumplings, which are thought to resemble purses filled with coins, represent prosperity for the new year. PHOTO BY TINKY WEISBLAT

  • Many of the ingredients to make a lot of dumplings. PHOTO BY ANDY LEWIS

For the Recorder
Published: 1/24/2023 4:02:11 PM

Happy Lunar New Year! We have just entered the Year of the Rabbit. As readers may know, the Chinese Zodiac comprises 12 signs. Each is assigned an animal, and the animals repeat in a 12-year cycle. This roughly corresponds to the time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun.

This holiday is lunar and falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. It can arrive anywhere between late January and late February. This year it began fairly early, on Sunday, January 22. The holiday is usually celebrated for a full week so we still have plenty of time to enjoy it.

I wasn’t planning to celebrate this holiday … until my temporary neighbor Emma Qi decided to have a dumpling party. Emma is a talented Chinese artist and art teacher who is staying nearby with her American husband, Andy Lewis, while they wait for the paperwork for Emma’s green card to be processed.

Emma and Andy are supposedly in the area to enjoy winter sports. Although the amount of rain and ice we have had has made those sports difficult, they get exercise when they can and stay busy otherwise.

Andy works remotely for a video-game company. Emma paints portraits of cats and dogs. She is also working on a concept for children’s books that will combine her colorful artwork with blank pages for her young readers to illustrate.

Emma couldn’t let the Lunar New Year go by without making dumplings.

She and Andy generously hosted a dumpling making (and eating!) party for the immediate neighborhood.

Emma told me that making dumplings at this time of year is a traditional activity that gives families and communities (particularly women) in her homeland a chance to bond. “Ladies in the village hang out together while making dumplings,” she confided with a smile.

Elders are a particularly important component of dumpling assembly, Emma said. She upheld that tradition by including our 97-year-old neighbor Alice in the gathering. Alice was absolved of dumpling-assembly duty, but she happily ate her share of the final product.

Emma’s family likes to make a meat (beef or pork) version each year as well as a vegetarian version. She also often makes a vegan version in which tofu becomes the protein. (In the vegetarian version below, eggs fulfill that function.)

She prefers frozen to fresh tofu; she thinks the change in consistency from freezing renders the tofu spongier and helps it absorb the flavors around it.

She informed me that in the parts of China near the sea, fish and/or shrimp are often incorporated into dumplings. In Shanghai, it is traditional to use eggs to create not just the dumplings themselves but also their wrappers. The fillings there are folded into a sort of omelet or crêpe.

For our neighborhood party, Emma made four types of dumpling: pork, beef, vegan and vegetarian. I am only sharing two of her recipes below, the beef and the vegetarian, for the sake of my sanity. Many, many filling ingredients swirled around the kitchen at Valley View, Emma and Andy’s home.

Emma didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping all of the fillings straight. After all, she has been making dumplings for the Lunar New Year all her life. Her dexterity was a joy to behold; she shaped her dumplings with little ridges at the edges that made them look like mice or porcupines.

My own dumpling work was less skilled; my dumplings looked like blobs rather than any particular animal. They tasted just fine, however.

Emma’s dipping sauce, which gets much of its flavoring from sesame paste and peanut butter, isn’t traditional, she informed me. The peanut butter in particular has only become fashionable in recent years. The sauce was smooth and flavorful, however.

Below are Emma’s beef and vegetarian dumpling recipes. I’m afraid I can’t tell you how many dumplings the recipes make. Somehow, we lost count in the middle of assembling and eating them. There were certainly a lot of them.

Emma explained that “a lot” of dumplings is exactly what people want to produce when they get together for the New Year in China. They freeze quantities of dumplings to enjoy throughout the week of the celebration … and beyond.

The dumplings, which are thought to resemble purses filled with coins, represent prosperity for the new year. They also represent the coming together of families. Emma gave us all that family feeling as we cooked, munched, and talked.

Emma’s Dumplings

Ingredients:

for the dipping sauce (all the ingredients here are optional, but I like them all):

chili oil to taste (not more than 4 teaspoons)

3 teaspoons black vinegar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

grated white pepper as desired

1 tablespoon sesame paste, mixed with 1 tablespoon warm water

1 tablespoon peanut butter

for the meat filling:

1 scallion, plus another scallion later

5 long slices ginger root

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

1 pound beef

3 carrots, grated and briefly stir fried

1/2 small purple onion, finely chopped

1 egg

3 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons oyster sauce

ground white pepper to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 to 2 teaspoons 13-spice blend (omit this if you can’t find it, but it’s good!)

for the vegetable filling:

1 zucchini, grated

1/2 cup corn kernels (frozen and defrosted will be fine)

1 handful bean sprouts

4 scrambled eggs, cut into small pieces

3 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons oyster sauce

ground white pepper to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 to 2 teaspoons 13-spice blend (omit this if you can’t find it, but it’s good!)

for cooking and assembly:

2 cups water, mixed with 1 teaspoon flour (You may add to this if you need to.)

1 package commercial dumpling wrappers (or more for a large party)

canola oil as needed for frying

3 to 4 cloves garlic, sliced

4 sprigs coriander (cilantro) leaf, roughly shredded

Instructions:

For meat or vegetable dumplings: Whisk together the ingredients for the dipping sauce, and set them aside.

For the meat dumplings: Place 1 scallion, roughly cut up, in a glass or mug along with the ginger root and the Sichuan peppercorns. Pour in 10 ounces of hot water, and let the veggies and pepper steep in the water for 2 hours to form a spicy tea.

At the end of the two hours, put the beef, the carrots, the onions, and the egg in a bowl. Blend thoroughly. Stir in the remaining filling ingredients, and blend again. Drain the spicy tea, and add half of it to the beef. (You may discard the other half or freeze it for more dumplings.)

Take a dumpling wrapper, and use a finger to spread some of the water/flour mixture on one side. For each dumpling, spoon about 1 teaspoon of the filling into the center of a wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half to cover the filling, and seal carefully. Crimp as desired.

Put the filled dumplings on a plate or board to await their relatives as you fill more wrappers.

For fried dumplings, pour a generous splash of canola oil into a skillet. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add enough dumplings to make 1 layer.

Cook the dumplings until their bottoms begin to brown and then flip them over and brown them lightly on the other side.

Reduce the heat to low, and add a splash of the water/flour mixture (about 1/4 cup). Watch out for sizzling and splattering when the water hits the oil. Cover the dumplings. Cook for a couple of minutes.

Uncover the dumplings and cook them until the liquid has almost disappeared and the bottoms are crispy. Remove them to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining dumplings. Serve with the dipping sauce and garnishes.

For steamed dumplings, line the layers of a bamboo steamer with parchment paper, and cut little slits in the paper so that the steam can rise through it. Lightly sprinkle a little flour on each parchment round. Place dumplings in a single layer on each layer of the steamer.

Place the steamer over a fairly deep pan with a generous amount of cold water. Bring the water to a boil, and steam the dumplings over medium heat until they smell yummy, puff up just a little, and turn slightly translucent (about 20 minutes cooking in all). Serve with the dipping sauce and garnishes.

For the vegetable dumplings, begin by placing the shredded zucchini in a colander in the sink. Sprinkle salt on it; then let it sit for an hour or so. At the end of the hour, squeeze out the excess liquid. (The salt helps make the zucchini less wet.)

Place the zucchini in a bowl, and add the remaining vegetable ingredients.

Mix well. Proceed to assemble and then fry and/or steam the dumplings as directed above for the meat version.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.


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