Monday, January 30, 2006

Ugly Dumplings

Potstickers are the junk food of China. There are hundreds of kinds of dumplings. Maozi and shu mei, pidgeon egg dumplings (which refer to the shape, I think) and all the varieties of dim sum. But the most common dumplings where I lived were the pork stuffed half moons that here we call potstickers.

When I lived in China there were a bunch of dumpling restaurants in walking distance of the college where I taught. These places were sheds, thrown together from scrap and plywood and only large enough for at most a dozen people to sit and eat, and at night, they would glow and flicker on the street since most of them had no electricity and used propane lanterns sitting on the tables. They were part of the gray market economy. They weren't recognized by the government and were technically illegal although I assume authorities turned a blind eye like they did to the baker and the yam seller and the bicycle repair guy and all the other little shops. They were unheated fire traps--the propane burner was an open flame but I doubt it really warmed up the space much. Since people couldn't own land when I lived in China, they sprung up on the side of the road--really squatters--and their back walls were often the walls that surrounded factory compounds--or where I lived, the wall that surrounded the college. Someone would set up a burner powered by a propane tank and a chopping block and make dumplings. I never ate in one because when I would pass in the early winter dark they would be full of men, wearing their coats and drinking beer or baijiu (liquor), their faces red, shoveling dumplings in with chopsticks. Working men. I would have been like a stork in a chicken farm.

The potstickers where I lived were not, technically speaking, potstickers. They were boiled, not fried. And everybody knew how to make them. On New Years Eve and at family gatherings, everyone would sit around and make them by the hundreds. I was taught to make them in China but the truth is that there is a certain skill to handling the dough and forming the dumplings (call jiaozi) and neither I nor any foreigner I knew could do it even as well as your average twelve year old girl. I came back to the U.S. with a great taste for them. I didn't eat them in those little sheds, but I did eat them at friend's houses and my own cook would make them for us if we had company and it was, in his opinion, that kind of occasion--not formal, just good friends and beer.

They're on menus everywhere here these days, but the things that you get in the U.S. tend to be disappointing. Commercial potstickers have thick 'wrappers' or dough. In China they are sold one of two ways, either in tens (you order ten, twenty, thirty, however many you want) or by the jin, or kilo. If you order them by the jin, the smallest order is ban jin, or half a kilo. A kilo, by the way, is 2.2 lbs. When I told my Chinese students that in the U.S., when you order dumplings you get either six or eight, they laughed. They didn't believe me, either.

I introduced them to Bob and he, too, loves them. So this afternoon, having found a recipe, I decided to try to make some. The recipe I used was actually for shrimp and pork potstickers, made in a frying pan. There are a lot of pitfalls in making potstickers and this particular recipe, it seemed to me, would minimize my possibility of screwing up.

To make potstickers is, in one sense, very easy. The dough is just flour and water. You make the filling and you make the dough, and then you roll out little round circles of dough. You plunk a spoon full of your filling in the middle of the dough, fold the dough over in a little half moon, and crimp the edges. Then, in Shijiazhuang, we boiled them. (People fried the leftover ones the next morning for breakfast.)

If, when I folded it over, I didn't get all the air out around the filling, then when I dropped the dumpling in boiling water, the heat would expand the air pocket and the wrapper would burst, a catastrophic failure that made the boiling water into weak soup and left a limp and shredded empty dumpling wrapper. Even when I thought I had got all the air out, people were always taking my dumplings from me and getting the air out.

Assuming I had gotten the air out, I would squeeze the edges of my dumpling together. In China, everyone made beautifully pleated edges for their dumplings. Mine were not beautiful. And no matter how carefully I squeezed, someone was always picking up one of my dumplings and sealing a place where I had missed. This is another dumpling engineering disaster, which allows water into the dumpling and creates a soggy mess that is better for flavoring the boiling water than eating.

But the recipe I decided to try tonight is different. First you plunk the dumpling in a hot frying pan and let them fry on the bottom, then you pour a little water over them and let them finish cooking by steaming. It seemed to me to be a possibly very forgiving way to make dumplings. And it is, in parts of China, very traditional. I have been making Chinese food this week in honor of Chinese New Years, and I want it to taste like I remember it. And nothing here does. The pork tastes different. Everything is just...different. Not bad, but not what I remember.

Yesterday I made pork with black beans and garlic. U.S. pork is very lean, so I bought a pork shoulder roast. This is a fairly cheap cut of pork in the U.S. It has a lot of fat in it. It can be tough. I cut it into shreds and stir fried it with scallions and fermented black beans and garlic, soy sauce and cornstarch, and there was the pork taste I remembered!

So I made my filling using the same cut of pork. I have an old meat grinder (vegetarians avert your eyes.) I ground the pork shoulder (I am a bit obsessive) and made my filling. I rolled out my dumpling wrappers. And I made some of the most lopsided dumpling wrappers ever seen. (I made my wrappers the way I saw them made in China, which involves snipping off a piece of dough about the size of a coin, and then rolling it out in a circle. I didn't trust myself to be able to roll a square of dough out thin enough to make the dumplings the way I remembered them.)

They were Ugly Dumplings. I heated the oil, placed them in a spiral in the pan, cooked them until the bottoms were golden brown, then poured water in the frying pan and plunked a lid on and let them steam.

I lifted the lid at one point and saw that one of the dumplings had ballooned out--air pocket, what would have been a catastrophic failure in boiling. I plunked the lid back down without looking farther. After ten minutes, I took the lid off. They looked done. They smelled done. And they smelled like...dumplings. I inverted the frying pan over a plate. My dumplings clung to the frying pan. I ran a spatula around the edge.

One of the dumplings left a bit of wrapper in the frying pan, but the rest came out perfect. Two dozen pork and shrimp dumplings, ugly, but tasting like I remembered them. The wrappers were paper thin. The pork and shrimp filling had the indefinable something (probably pork fat) that was different than pork here. The vinegar and soy sauce were both Chinese brands. In China, one of my phrases was You cu ma? 'Do you have vinegar?' Like asking for ketchup on your hamburger, I like black vinegar on my dumplings. We doused them in dipping sauce and ate the whole plate.

I don't think I'll do them often. And if you are Asian, you will never have dumplings at my house because trust me, these are Ugly Dumplings. But it's nice to know that if I want, I can call a little bit of China up in my kitchen.


Blogger J. Erik Lundberg said...

Maureen, you made my stomach growl just reading this post. And I just ate!

When I was visiting my wife's family in Singapore and Hong Kong last October, we had dumpings as well, and it's never been the same over here in the States. So good on ya.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

January 30, 2006 8:02 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Thanks. And I'll be listening to the mp3 to find out what you think of Egger's new collection, How We Are Hungry.

January 30, 2006 8:42 PM  
Blogger J. Erik Lundberg said...

I hope you enjoy it. I tended to blather quite a bit in this episode, but the review of Eggers' collection starts at around 25:30 into the podcast.

January 30, 2006 9:59 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Once again, Maureen Is My Hero.

I made dumplings once years ago. It wasn't that they weren't worth the work (they were delicious, although fairly ugly) but they were gone so soon that it sort of broke my heart, and I didn't have the will to try again.

Now, I think I'll have to. Can't have shrimp, alas (I'm allergic) but I can always get pork shoulder. Yum.

January 31, 2006 1:26 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

My ex-girlfriend's mom was Okinawan and she taught me how to make Crab Rangoon, which I think has several different names depending on what ethnicity is making it, and I had the same damned problems with getting the air out, though after lots of practice I was able to make pretty nifty looking folds. When you leave air in Crab Rangoon wrappers and don't get the wrapper sealed well enough, the whole thing blows up like you described, but you're frying these in a deep-fryer and the whole inside of cream cheese and scallions and crab comes floating out. Such a waste. Damn, I haven't had those things in years. I don't see them here anywhere.

January 31, 2006 6:26 AM  
Blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

You had me at the pork fried with "scallions and fermented black beans and garlic, soy sauce and cornstarch." Okay, I'm ready to eat.

Sometime when you're back in New York you need to visit this unprepossessing place, which seats about five people but which dispenses some of the most amazing fried dumplings I've ever had. The pork-sesame-anise-and-cilantro "sandwich" is pretty amazing too.

February 01, 2006 8:40 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Pork-sesame-anise-and-cilantro 'sandwich'? OMG

I actually didn't gain weight in New York. I can only assume that the thity blocks I walked a day countered the food.

I desperately want to come back in the fall and bring Bob.

February 01, 2006 8:56 AM  

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