Today was an epic day – a double-whammy of Valentine’s Day and, more importantly, Chinese New Year. 😉 Writing this I am stuffed to the brim with my mother’s homemade dumplings/potstickers, only they weren’t made by my mother this year – for the first time in my 22 years on earth, I managed to make glorious 饺子 jiao zi（锅贴）(guo tie) from scratch on my own (or at least, as commander of a small cooking team:). There wasn’t a minute though that I wasn’t reminiscing about my home and family – especially my mother and all of the years that we watched and helped her cook our favorite meal.
There is so much that goes into making a good Chinese dumpling. First there’s the xiar (filling), which we usually make with pork and Chinese Napa cabbage (since we’re in Muslim Kazakhstan, this time we substituted with beef and regular cabbage). The meat has to be marinated first for 20 minutes in soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil (luckily for me, I found what is seemingly the one place in this city that sells sesame oil, and they had one big bottle left which I purchased for 400 tenge – an in-demand Korean lady’s stall at one of the bazaars on the outskirts of the city). You can also add the optional eggs, chives or shrimp (we did the former two this time…you don’t want to eat the shrimp in a landlocked country, just FYI).
[Our dough coins, rolled wrappers, and filling]
Then there’s the dough for the wrappers, which has to be just right. There is so much that goes into jiao zi dough (though it is just flour and water!) that it is indisputably an art. First, the water must be cold. Depending on the nature of the flour, the amount of water necessary will be different, so you just have to eyeball it (or rather, feel it with your fingers) until it’s just right. My mom always told me – 手干，碗儿干，面干 (clean hands, clean bowl, clean dough) – that’s when you know your kneading is done. Her dough would always be smooth and beautiful – mine today seemed clumsy and crumbly at first until I impatiently added a generous dallop of water at the last minute, and then it was slimy, until it evened out in the end (phew!). Also, it was impossible to know exactly how much to make for the amount of meat we had; at first it seemed like far too much dough, but then it turned out to be not enough, and we made another small batch. But Mom always has it perfect down to the last dumpling, or if she ended a little short she would finish off the last bit of meat in between two wrappers, twisting the extra dough into a pretty design at the edges and making a large “xiar-bing”-like meat pastry that lorded over the other, tinier dumplings.
When cutting the dough, you have to divide it into sections, making sure to cover whatever remains with a wet towel so it doesn’t dry out. Then it must be rolled into a long baton of the proper thickness and – a neat trick – cut while alternating the dough left and right so that each coin would have a flat, pressable end. Mom would always cut and turn the dough so quickly and deftly, and we would sit and press the coins down with our fingers into flat circles for rolling. I always tried to press as fast as she cut, but it was hard to keep up.
Then comes rolling, which is the part I always remembered best about jiao zi-making. Mom taught us how to roll wrappers with the middle thicker and the edges thinner, so the meat in the center wouldn’t break through while boiling. We would take each round coin and press one edge with the roller, then rotate and press again…never rolling through the middle, only on the edges. Mom did it so fast that in four or five turns, the little dough coin turned into a flat and perfectly round wrapper. It always took me forever when I was little – I would roll too hard or too soft, turn too slowly and unevenly, and my wrapper usually looked like some stretched out oblong mess, or else thick and thin in all the wrong places. When I was really little I remember I would make little ugly dough animals instead, which of course no one (least of all me) wanted to eat after they were boiled. Later on when I managed to painstakingly churn out a really round wrapper, I would point it out and show mom, and she would always praise me. I still remember the time (I must have been a teenager by then) when at long last she told me – “终于，我们龚瑞学会擀皮儿了！” (“Finally, our Gong Rui has learned how to roll wrappers!”)
擀皮儿 (rolling out the wrappers) was the beginner’s game though – the daunting task that separated child from expert was stuffing the wrappers. The amount of filling has to be just right – too much and it will spill out, or the wrapper won’t close properly and your dumpling will fall apart in the pot; too little, and it will be all dough and no meat in your mouth. Of course you could cop-out the amateur way and put a little water on the edges of the wrapper, fold it in half and pinch it all the way around – but then your dumplings will always be flat and long with an ugly, chewy pinched dough edge, instead of a juicy round center filling. The way mom did it was nothing short of pure magic to me – she would put so much meat into the middle that I would be sure the wrapper would never close around it. Then in one fell movement she would fold the wrapper between her index fingers and thumbs, and after one firm squeeze with both hands, a perfectly plump dumpling would emerge. Her dumplings were always delicious and beautiful looking, without any extra dough on the edges, and as much filling as possible in the middle – not to mention she could wrap them three times as fast as I could while painstakingly pinching. After boiling you would always be able to pick out my ugly ducklings from her scrumptious flock – we’d laugh about it and mom would graciously eat my doughy concoctions on my behalf.
[Me showing my host mom and brother how to perfectly “挤” (squeeze) a jiao zi shut]
Jiao zi can be boiled or else pan-fried, in which case they are renamed “guo tie” (literally, “pot-stickers”). When boiling one must stir them so they don’t stick, and alternately wait for the pot to boil over and add water (twice; after the third boil-over, they’re done). Pan-frying usually occurred with frozen leftover jiao zi, which were just as delicious several days later – brown them slightly in oil first on the pan, then cover them in water (if they are raw) and let simmer, and they will be half pan-fried, half-steamed. We made both variants this evening, and guo tie was the runaway prefered favorite (as they always were with me and my sister, too).
[Delicious 锅贴 (potstickers)]
The last step before serving I have long handled with pride – the jiao zi sauce. Even as a kid this was my duty, since despite often having to give up on rolling and wrapping, it was near impossible to mess up the sauce. A perfect blend of dark Chinese vinegar (never the clear or appley stuff), soy sauce, and a dash of sesame oil that would float in circles at the top, finished with hot sauce to taste (I would always add a lot).
Since Chinese New Year did coincide with Valentine’s Day this year, Phillip generously contributed some delicious, dark-cacao fudge brownies with chocolate icing as the perfect end to our euphoria-enducing meal. I celebrated with my new family here, while missing my own back home. Mom, thank you for the recipe, which I finally tried to do justice tonight after some 20 years of trial and error – but you are and always will be the best cook in the entire world.