Saturday, February 16, 2008

Guo Nian Kuai Le (Happy New Year) - Part 1

As many of you likely know, Thursday, February 7, was Chinese New Year. As in other cultures, Chinese holidays have certain foods associated with them... foods that help to define and shape holiday celebrations. The 3 foods I associate the most with Chinese New Year are dumplings, fish, and noodles. I'm hoping that before the month is over I'll have a recipe for each one of these on the blog.

There is so much that I love about Chinese New Year. I love that it is celebrated for a week. Why don't we have any week-long holidays in America? Literally, life stops for a whole week. People travel back to their hometowns to spend time with their families. They clean their houses so the new year gets off to a fresh, clean, tidy start. They eat lots of yummy food with their family and friends. They visit Buddhist temples and honor their ancestors. They are in a perpetually good mood (for the week at least) because no one wants to ring in the new year with a bad spirit in their heart. They hang red banners around their door frames with good fortunes or positive sayings written on them. These banners stay on their doorways until the next year, so when you wander through neighborhoods you see them, weathered and looking a little worn, but still festive and welcoming. They also hang upside down characters on their doors to invite good fortune or to welcome spring. It's a very exciting, joyful time and I loved experiencing it during the one Chinese New Year I spent in Taiwan.

My, admittedly belated, gift to you this Chinese New Years is a recipe for some super tasty dumplings. A quick history of the dumpling's place on the New Year's table... In a nutshell, dumplings look like an old form of Chinese money, the gold ingot. Eating them at the New Year means you are hopeful that the coming year will be full of good things, i.e. money. I apologize that my tardiness in getting this post up means that none of you will be able to ring in the new year with a plate full of dumplings. However, you now have a good eleven months to perfect your dumpling technique in time for the next Chinese new year.

Dumplings have actually been part of my Chinese cooking repertoire for a number of years now and whenever I make Chinese food for people, dumplings inevitably make an appearance on the table. The only exception so far being the time, in Virginia, when for some as yet unexplained reason they all fell apart in the water and the meat tasted strange to boot, so they all got thrown away. Usually however, I'm quite successful at throwing together a good tasting dumpling. In addition, people like them and they're kind of fun and look complicated (which they aren't), so they're an easy trick to pull when you want to impress people.

In Taiwan and China you can order dumplings three ways: steamed, boiled, and pan-fried (i.e. potstickers). The boiled variety tend to be the most common and that's how I prepared the recipe below. My favorite version is actually the steamed variety. However, I tend to boil them now because its the easiest method to pull off at home. I always have plenty of pots hanging around my kitchen, but I can't say the same for steamer baskets.

The below recipe is a new take, for me anyway, on dumplings. Usually when I make dumplings I go to a Chinese supermarket and pick up some zhou cai (Chinese chives). However, I really wanted this recipe to be super-doable for any adventurous soul out there willing to give it a try, and zhou cai can be a bit of a pain to find. Fortuitously, my friend Joanne, who hails from Taiwan, stayed with me in January and while at my apartment she made a batch of dumplings using cabbage, not chives. I had many dumplings made with cabbage in Taiwan, and while I liked them there, I've never liked my attempts to recreate the recipe here at home. Joanne kindly agreed to school me in her cabbage-pork dumpling technique and I'm now thrilled to share the below recipe with you. Enjoy!

Shui Jiao (a.k.a. Boiled Dumplings)

1 small head of cabbage
1 1/2 lbs. ground pork
2 T. sesame oil
2 1/2 T. soy sauce
6-7 cloves garlic
3/4 t. salt
Asian dumpling wrappers - You can buy these at pretty much any grocery store. I like the round kind, but the square ones work just as well

Chop the cabbage very, very fine. Part of what makes Joanne's method so good is that you don't have large chunks of cabbage so this step is key. Mince the garlic, also very fine.

Mix all ingredients, except the wrappers (of course). I usually use my hands for this step because it goes faster, but if that kind of tactile pleasure does not appeal to you, feel free to use a spoon. Just make sure everything is mixed up really well.

Fill a small bowl with water. Open the wrappers and put them next to the bowl of meat and the bowl of water. You want everything within easy reach. Get out a baking sheet (preferably rimmed) and sprinkle with flour.

Fill the dumplings. This is actually not complicated, so don't let this step stop you from attempting this recipe. Place a dumpling wrapper on the palm of your non-dominant hand. Take about a tablespoon of filling and put it in the center of the wrapper. Dip your finger in the water and run it around the edge of the dumpling wrapper. The water will seal the two edges when you fold your dumpling. Fold the wrapper in half and press along the edge to seal. Tada! You're done. You have officially made your first dumpling. Put it on the baking sheet and carry on until all the wrappers or filling have been used.

You may notice from my earlier photo that I do this little crimping/folding thing with my dumplings to make them look pretty. A nice, older Taiwanese woman taught me how to do this and I like the way it looks, so whenever I make dumplings, they look like that. However, it is absolutely not necessary, so I recommend just folding the wrapper and sealing it, as outlined above, because it will save time and stress.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. When you have some dumplings ready, dump about 10 into the pot. The dumplings will sink to the bottom and slowly rise back to the top as the water comes back to a boil. You may want to give them a quick stir or two though so they don't get stuck to the bottom of the pot. Once they have risen back to the top and the water is boiling again, add enough cold water to the pot to stop the boiling. Once the water comes to a boil again, again add enough cold water to stop the boiling. Do this one more time. When the dumplings come to a boil after you have added water 3 times, they are ready to eat.

They are good with all kinds of sauces. Soy sauce is the most common. I like to add a little fresh minced garlic, hot pepper flakes, and a little sesame oil to jazz it up. You can also try Asian hot sauces or Thai sweet Chili sauce (my current favorite).

Also, if you make a big batch, cook up however many you want to eat that night, and freeze the rest. Then whenever you want some, you have some ready and can dump them in the water without defrosting. They'll just take a little longer to cook.