Every time I make dumplings it’s never enough. Everyone loves them. One of my sisters announced, at the Jen Cafe in Chinatown (where we were, of course, getting dumplings), that it was not possible to eat too many dumplings. It just wasn’t. You could, she said, just carry on eating them until you got bored. Or kicked out of the shop.
Jen Cafe (tiny, steamy) always has a diligent woman in the window making dumplings by hand. They are chewy, with tiny bubbles threatening to escape through the skins and (unlike the prettier sort) simply sealed unpleated into fat-bellied half-moons. A plate of seven costs about £5. We ordered three rounds of the Beijing dumplings, one steamed and two fried, and each plate was subtly different. Silk Road, in Camberwell, has terrific house-made dumplings in the Xinjiang (north-west China) style — made with lamb and onion.
Dumplingdom (the domain of steamed or boiled dough-things) is a wide field — from the many different dim sum to the matzo ball to the pierogi. There is something comforting about having a wrapper with something inside — the Cornish pasty, the calzone. I have made Taiwanese pineapple cakes — soft shortbread crust with golden pineapple concealed inside (almost like an Asian mince pie) — and felt the same pleasure. And I love manti — sometimes referred to as Turkish ravioli, they are really more dumpling-like, made of small squares of rolled-out dough pinched shut around scraps of lamb, into a sort of tiny pyramid. Manti, I think, must be something spread from central Asia on the Silk Road, because the word signifies a dumpling of this wrapped sort quite widely. Korea has dumplings called “mandu”. (Mantou, in China, is a sweet fluffy steamed bun, so not quite the same.) Food words — like words for trade goods — are easily spread and absorbed into other languages. (Tea, copper, orange, sugar, wine: for all of these words the same root has spread into many different languages.)
If you want your dumplings to be beautiful, get Janice Wong and Jian Jun Ma’s Dim Sum: A Flour-Forward Approach (Gatehouse Publishing, £24). If you want to make a relatively basic dumpling, go for the northern Chinese-style jiaozi, or guo tie: a wheatflour wrapper and a pork-and-cabbage interior, steamed or fried, crispy, chewy, juicy, tender. Prawns are permitted, chicken is known of, but pork, I’m afraid — and fatty pork — is what we want. (Lamb and onions could be substituted, taking it closer to a Turkic dumpling.) The wrappers, if you like, can be bought from Asian supermarkets, and they freeze perfectly well, if the idea of rolling out a hundred dumpling skins worries you. But this is cooking as occupational therapy and it’s better, honestly, just to make the dumpling and then freeze it, whole, to bring out at some grim time in the future when you don’t want to leave the house. The only piece of special kit you need is a small-diameter rolling pin — it makes a huge difference to the effort you have to expend. You want one that looks and feels like a piece of broom handle.
The first piece of advice is: make lots. The second is: I’ve never correctly matched up wrapper quantities with filling quantities, so I apologise in advance. For maybe 30 dumpling wrappers, start with 240g flour — plain is fine, but higher-protein (strong) I find easier to roll out. Add 120ml hot water, and knead it until smooth. (Add more water or more flour if it needs it.) Then clingwrap it and let it rest for about half an hour. For the filling, 200g each of fatty minced pork (the fat is important, sorry) and finely chopped Chinese cabbage (also called Napa cabbage). Salt it and leave it until water starts coming out — squeeze this out. Season it as much or as little as you like: minced garlic, ginger, spring onion, a little bit of white pepper, soy sauce, rice wine, a tiny bit of sesame oil. Mix it all together. You want it soft but coherent. Make your dipping sauce: a three-to-one ratio of soy sauce and rice vinegar, with a few chilli flakes.
Knead your dough again and roll it into a long sausage-snake. If you can be bothered, weigh each piece as you cut it off. You’re looking for it to be around 15-20 grams. Using your small-diameter rolling pin and a floured board, roll each lump out into (more or less) a circle. If they’re floury and not too wet, you can stack them, covered with a tea towel, until you’re ready to fill them. (Or you can buy the wrappers ready-made, which is fine, but you lose part of the therapeutic value.)
A loaded teaspoon is enough to fill one of these — don’t be tempted to overdo it. Seat the wrapper in one hand, smush the blob of filling into the middle, and pinch it shut. I generally just fold the sides together — pinch shut in the middle, then work down to each end, trying, sometimes, to put in those nice little pleats, but they look better if you start at one end and work down to the other. (Use cornstarch-and-water as glue.) You will discover very quickly if you’ve used too much filling, by which I mean it will splurge out. They have a tendency to stick together (and any rogue water inside has a tendency to come out), so keep them separated on a board or tray until you need them.
The main thing — even if you buy your dumplings frozen and ready-made from a Chinese supermarket — is to cook them correctly. We’re not delicately steaming these. You want to fry them and you want them to stick to the pan, making a nice crust, before detaching easily. Most reliable for me is a non-stick frying pan, heated with just a film of oil. Sit your dumplings in there and fry until golden brown underneath — about two or three minutes. When they’re cooked underneath, tip a cup of water in — it will froth and steam like mad, so just let it — then turn the heat down and put a lid on it, but not too tightly. You want them to steam but you also want the water eventually to evaporate. Leave it for 10 or 15 minutes. When the water’s almost gone take the lid off, turn up the heat, and boil the last bit away. When they are sizzling again they are ready. Let’s hope you’ve made enough.