Chinese New Year. Now that’s my kind of New Year. Celebrated for 2 weeks and centred on food, bright colours, parades packed with drama, and people having fun. I have always had an affection for it. Clearly, I have a strong sense of food occasion, the only bit that I don’t like is the whole tidying thing you have to do in advance. I am still waiting until I am wealthy enough to pay someone to do all of that stuff for me. As I am not Chinese I don’t adhere to that, I do enjoy the food though, and always indulge.
I love Chinese food as a rule, not the shiny food glistening with cornstarch and gloop that you get in your local take away but real Chinese food from many corners of that huge country, food that is increasingly widely available in London. My particular favourite is Sichuan, spicy, numbing and hot, bursting with flavour, boldly embracing all kinds of offal and other bits coldly disregarded from Western tables.
For this dish, I am going to Beijing land of the dumpling, cosy velvet pouches of steamy savoury goodness. Dumplings are excellent comfort food, especially when dipped in black vinegar and chilli oil, and they’re really easy to make too. A little finicky at first, but like everything, after a few Frankenstein attempts, you’ll reward yourself with a perfect little dumpling and a glorious bite.
Not content with being soothing for the soul and your tum, dumplings symbolise wealth, resembling the golden ingots used as currency during the Ming Dynasty. . Serving them at Chinese New Year brings the promise of wealth, good luck and prosperity. I’ll have some of that lovely symbolism thank you very much; I want a new camera and will take all of the lucky symbolism that I can get.
Regular readers will have noticed my tenacity, ok obsessive tendencies, with food that I like. So it won’t be any surprise that I have been making these for a week in an attempt to unlock their secrets. I researched many recipes, and tried different techniques and fillings. There are many ways of doing them, and the fillings are supremely flexible. Pork is a popular choice, particularly popular with me, so no surprise then that it was one of my favourites. Some like to cook the filling first, I prefer to put the filling in raw, it helps to shape the dumpling and the resulting texture is solid and the flavours are more fused. Cooking the filling, meat ones at least, results in a more fragmented filling with a drier texture. I could see that cooking would be essential for some vegetarian fillings but it’s not for me otherwise.
My research included two very good recipes from Helen at World Foodie Guide and Rasa Malaysia that I would highly recommend. My trials revealed two further personal favourites, one plain ground pork with Chinese chives, spring onion some rice wine, a little sesame oil and shredded spring onion. I varied it slightly for another version adding approximately a quarter of the volume of pork, in raw chopped prawns. The fillings are so flexible, play around until you hit the one you like the best. I used white pepper instead of black pepper for seasoning as it’s so good with pork, and the Chinese use it a lot. It has a lovely gentle spice and a strong aroma, not for everyone but I love it. Irish people use it a lot too, incidentally. We had no black pepper in our house growing up.
If you can, I urge you to make the dough. It’s infinitely superior and not that challenging, it just takes time. The texture is also more gentle and malleable for rolling and shaping, and it tastes so much better. However, there is no real harm in buying jiaozi wrappers in your local Chinese shop (if you have one) and are short on time.
There’s no perfect meal without a good wine, and when that wine matches, well, life is sweet and that little bit more in tune. The jiaozi are quite delicate, with no strong spicing, save some white pepper so a crisp white wine with body, creaminess and a little zing matches well. I tried two, a Marlborough Pinot Gris from Wither Hills (2008), at a very good £9.99 at Waitrose. It was lovely and fresh with lots of sweetness and aromas of honeysuckle and quince. It had a gentle sweetness and creaminess, but I felt wasn’t crisp enough to be a perfect match. I preferred the second, Petaluma Riesling 2008 Hanlin Hill, Clare Valley, Australia, which had a really refreshing acidity and was sufficiently dry yet fruity. It was a lovely wine and was a great match for the Jiaozi. Also available at Waitrose for a bargain £9.49.
Dumpling Wrapper Ingredients
1 cup dumpling flour from your local Chinese shop OR plain flour
¼ cup water
A pinch of salt
450g minced pork
3 spring onions finely, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
A handful of finely chopped Chinese chives (or normal chives)
I tbsp rice wine vinegar
½ tsp sesame oil
Salt & white pepper to taste
To serve: black vinegar & chilli oil
Filling: mix the ingredients and leave covered in the fridge while you make the dumpling wrappers. This will allow the flavours to integrate.
Wrappers: combine the flour, salt and water and mix. Knead until shiny and elastic for 10 minutes, or chuck in your mixer and let it do the work for 5 minutes. This is what I did!
You may want to add more water or flour; you want a mixture that is firm without being too wet.
Cover in cling film or put in a plastic bag for 30 minutes in the fridge. Roll your jiaozi wrappers by pulling off little balls, smaller than a 10p piece, and rolling until thin, about as thin as pasta, and about three inches in diameter. Roughly!
Brush the edges of the wrappers lightly with water (not too much as they’ll get soggy). Place a teaspoon of filling in the centre and fold in a half moon shape and press closed ensuring they are sealed.
Add to boiling water for a few minutes, when they rise to the top they are cooked in theory but do check by cutting into one, as you don’t want to eat raw pork. I didn’t have any problems with this, they were always cooked through, so don’t worry too much. Be careful not to boil for too long, as the wrapper may burst if it’s quite thin.
Serve with a dipping sauce of Chinese black vinegar with some chilli oil.