#72, Make Chinese Dumplings
With all of the lunar festivals going on, I decided today would be a great day to make jiao-zi, or pork-filled dumplings, though I wasn’t exactly sure where to begin. My memory of making dumplings in cooking school is a bit vague. Actually, more than vague. I don’t remember making them at all. We must have made them, though, we made everything.
I thought I remembered seeing little potsticker molds at World Market, but I didn’t feel like making the trip and I generally do not like to accumulate gadgets.
My reluctance to buy gadgets stems from the ugly look my teacher, Chef Edwards, once gave the garlic press in my tool kit. I said, “What’s wrong? These presses are really effective.”
He said, “Sure they are. If you want to be a hack.”
That was the day I removed the garlic press, and all other gadgets from my kit.
So no, I would not be buying a gadget to make dumplings. Instead I tried to recall all the stellar dumplings I’ve eaten over the years.
I soon remembered that the best dumplings I’ve ever had were at Prosperity Dumpling on Canal Street in New York City. We ate them in a park with hot juices running down our chins. They cost about a quarter apiece, so I bought five dozen and left them in the apartment freezer for our Airbnb hosts as a parting gift.
I thought if I could make something even half that good, it would be a rousing success.
I scanned my shelves for Breath of a Wok, Grace Young and Alan Richardson’s award winning cookbook, and thumbed through the index looking for dumplings. I was excited to find a recipe for Amy Tan’s Family’s Jiao-zi.
In her book, Grace writes wonderfully about her experience making jiao-zi with Amy Tan’s family. She was invited to a jiao-zi family party where everyone helped put the dumplings together. Grace shares the recipe in her book, and tells about other good luck foods to be eaten at New Year’s. She also suggests full menus for lunar new year celebrations.
I fell in love with Amy Tan’s writing after reading The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife. Never before had I heard a voice so unique, and so evocative. I saw the film The Joy Luck Club the day it came out in theaters and when I heard she was doing a book signing at Dutton’s book store in Santa Monica, I rushed to hear her speak.
Amy Tan said something that night that has always stuck with me. (I’m paraphrasing, forgive me.) When asked about her process, she said many people think that she sits down at her desk and that the book unfolds letter by letter, organized, and ready to read. She said that that isn’t the way it happens at all. She said that every page of the book has been written and rewritten no less than a hundred times. The words are rolled out, and crafted, and shaped until they are ready to simmer on the page. She said we should know that every sentence we read has had a red pen first bleed all over it.
Perhaps this information seems rudimentary to you, but as a young woman who didn’t have much exposure to artists, this was news to me. I was still under the impression that geniuses did not have to work. I did not know yet, that in many ways, true genius is the rare willingness to do the work in the first place. Anyone can write a sentence on a page. Only a select few will continue the work after rewriting it a hundred times over.
About a decade after that book signing, I was working at KCRW as a segment producer on Good Food with Evan Kleiman. I was given Grace Young’s contact information so that I might make arrangements for her to be a guest on the show. I had had the good luck to be seated next to her at a culinary conference a few months earlier, along with her friend James Oseland, former editor of Saveur, and I hung on their every word. Grace was refreshingly friendly and enthusiastic, as was James, and I remember wondering why New Yorkers get such a bad rap.
She appeared in studio as a prepared and engaging guest. I was impressed with the scope of her work, and with her dedication to accurately represent Asian cooking as a cultural and historical art form. Here’s a link to that archived episode, if you’re interested.
So one day, a few years later, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I looked down and I saw Grace’s phone number on my phone. I answered and yes, it was her! I couldn’t imagine why she might be calling me, but I was pleased that she remembered me and we got to chatting. Minutes went by and there didn’t seem to be any reason for the call, except our friendly conversation. She was interested in hearing about the road trip I was planning which would bring me to New York and she kindly offered some suggestions of where we might go, even offering to show us around in person. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I hung up thinking how nice it was of her to call. And how random. In fact, maybe, it was too random. After closer inspection, it became clear that I had in fact dialed her number. Pocket dialed. I was embarrassed, but overwhelmed at her kindness. She never asked why I called and didn’t seem rushed or disturbed by the call. Apparently, Grace is not just her name, but also an indication of her manners.
You can see why making the jiao-zi from Amy Tan’s family recipe in a book written by Grace Young would appeal to me. I made a quick trip to the market and got started.
You can purchase Grace’s delightful book here. Here is another version of the recipe, available online from food writer, Bill Daley, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle (now with The Chicago Tribune).
First I put flour in a bowl, made a well, and added water.
Next I kneaded the dough into a smooth ball.
Then I put the dough in a damp towel to rest.
While the dough napped, I chopped cabbage.
I put together the pork filling and dipping sauce.
I rolled the dough into ropes.
I pulled off small pieces and made little balls.
Then I flattened the balls into discs and filled them.
I pinched them together and placed them on a cookie sheet. My kitchen was about 90 degrees today, since I refuse to run the air conditioning in February. It meant, however, that I was having to chill the dumplings periodically so that the dough wouldn’t turn into a goopy mess. They would have had a better shape if I had been working in a cooler space. (That’s my story, I’m sticking to it.)
Next I put the dumplings, in batches, into boiling water.
They were ready in minutes and delicious with a ginger dipping sauce and sriracha. While the dumplings were great, and my teenagers made quick work of them, I can see how it would take time to get really good at them. Some of my dumplings had edges that were too thick, or the dough was too thin in the center and the filling had escaped.
With practice, though, I might get good at them. Amy Tan’s mother was an expert. She had no doubt rolled out countless thousands of jiao-zi before earning the family title of best dumpling cook.
It’s no wonder then that Amy Tan learned how to perfect her writing skills. She did it, as her mother before her–slowly, over time, dumpling by dumpling.
Grace has two other books I love, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge, both are full of wonderful recipes and kitchen lore.
It was lovely cooking with Grace and Amy today, and though turning out 5 dozen dumplings took me some time, I wasn’t alone. I heard the words of these women as I folded each half moon, and I silently wished them a Happy New Year as I pinched the edges between my fingers.
318 days to go!