One of my favorite ways to bond with my mom is to wrap dumplings together.
After so many years of tradition, our fingers follow muscle memory, folding in the filling and creasing the edges while we catch up on our lives.
Dumpling season is around the corner with the upcoming Lunar New Year, but the pandemic has postponed my plans to return home to California. I’ll have to make my dumplings alone in Florida.
This makes me think about when I first shipped out to college, and my parents sent along frozen buns and dumplings so I could easily reach for a taste of home. And later, when I lived by myself in Hong Kong, a nearby dumpling shop was a perfect panacea for my homesickness.
Since sheltering at home, I’ve been making dumplings more often, every two to three weeks, and freezing them. Whenever the mood strikes, I boil or fry them up and lessen my sense of isolation for a bit.
My dumplings are nowhere near as complicated as my mother’s, which involve ground pork and freshly peeled, deveined shrimp, plus grated napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. She chides me about cutting corners, noting that details matter.
Thanks to her example, even though I include only ground pork and chives, I can’t just buy prepackaged ground pork but pick out fatty pork and ask the supermarket to freshly grind it.
Dumpling maker Calvin Shea recommends pork butt for dumplings. And if you’re adding shrimp, he advises coarsely chopping them to leave a “snap when you bite into it.” His fillings are even more complicated, with ground pork, carrots, celery, cabbage, scallions and ginger; or scallops with jalapeño peppers, cilantro, scallions and napa cabbage.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., school recruiter was making dumplings for himself until they took over his Instagram account, and followers begged him to sell them. Now he does so on the side.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid because that’s the only way I could spend time with her,” Shea said about his 81-year-old mother. They’ve been making dumplings together since he was 3 and still do so regularly since she visited in January 2020 from Taiwan and can’t return because of the pandemic.
He adds that dumplings are a staple for the new year because they resemble the old, traditional Chinese gold ingots, “so you eat that for good luck going into the new year.”
While dumpling-making can be an all-year activity, the prime time is Lunar New Year’s Eve, which falls on Feb. 11 this year.
“You make it with family because that’s when everybody is gathered together to talk about the past, what happened last year, going forward, what’s going to happen; out with the old, in with the new,” Shea says.
Another tradition, Susan Qin said, is to wrap a cashew in one or two of the dumplings. Whoever ends up with these dumplings is granted good luck for the rest of the year.
Qin also started selling dumplings after noticing how small Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown was and wanting to share a taste of home with her community. It started as a side project, but dumplings, along with other entrees such as noodle kits, soon became her full-time job.
With a finance strategy background, she researched what would be popular with customers, found a chef and developed an online platform to sell the dumplings as Chinese Street Market. Her fillings range from pork and pumpkin to vegetables (spinach, napa cabbage, carrot, red bell pepper and shiitake mushrooms) and tofu.
As for the filling, Qin recommends marinating the meat in scallion, ginger water, soy sauce and cooking wine overnight. This keeps the filling from drying out as the dumplings cook.
My recipe provides a variation on this: I saute chives, ginger and garlic in soy sauce and cooking wine. I add this mixture to the raw meat before folding it all into the wrappers. Scallions can be substituted for chives.
Filling ingredients can vary as long as they are sturdy enough to withstand boiling or frying, so a vegetarian option could include a napa cabbage mixture with carrots and shiitake mushrooms or even chopped clear vermicelli noodles.
I don’t suggest making wrappers from scratch. It’s not an easy process, so I prefer buying ready-made dumpling skins. For variety, I use dumpling, wonton and vegetable skins. But, for dumplings, my favorite brand is Twin Marquis Northern Style Dumpling Wrappers. They consistently turn out great.
As for a dipping sauce, mine is usually soy sauce with a dollop of chili paste, but feel free to add grated garlic, scallions, chili oil and rice vinegar to taste.
This year, dumpling-making might be more of a solo activity in my kitchen, but I take comfort in knowing that as I wrap my dumplings, home cooks around the world are doing the same as they prepare for the Lunar New Year. And after such a challenging year, I just might add cashews into each one.
Pork and Chive Dumplings
For the dumplings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or another neutral oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
1 teaspoon minced or finely grated fresh ginger
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing cooking wine (optional)
1 pound ground pork (preferably pork butt)
One (10-ounce) package round wonton wrappers
For optional pan frying
¼ cup water, plus more if frying multiple batches
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or another neutral oil, divided, plus more if frying multiple batches
¼ cup chopped scallions (optional)
Make the dumplings: In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, combine the oil, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until they start to sizzle, about 2 minutes. Add the chives and soy sauce and wine, if using, and cook, stirring until the chives are aromatic, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the aromatics to the pork. Let sit until slightly cooled off, 1 to 2 minutes, then mix to combine.
To form the wontons, fill a small bowl with water. Place a wonton wrapper on the countertop and spoon a scant 2 teaspoons of the pork mixture into the center of the wrapper. Dab your index finger in the water and dampen the edges of the wrapper. Fold in half, creating a half-moon. Gently press the two halves together at the center of the curved edge.
Working your way down one side from the center, make 2 small pleats and press the edges closed. Repeat on the other side of the dumpling. When you’re done, the dumpling will be closed, with 4 pleats and a slight curve. Repeat until you run out of pork. You should get about 50 dumplings.
(Alternatively, you can simply seal the dumplings without pleating by pressing the edges of the folded wrapper together and gently crimping the sealed edge 4 times.)
If boiling dumplings: Fill a 3-quart pot three-quarters of the way with water and bring to a rolling boil. Carefully drop in however many dumplings you want to eat and boil until they float, about 5 minutes. Remove from the water and serve with your favorite dipping sauce.
If pan-frying dumplings: In a large saute pan with a lid over medium heat, combine ¼ cup of water and 1 tablespoon of oil. Working in batches as needed, place the dumplings evenly across the pan, making sure they aren’t touching. Partially cover the skillet and steam the dumplings until most of the water cooks off.
Add 1 tablespoon of oil and scallions, if using. Pan-fry the dumplings on one side – or, if you prefer, all over – until golden brown and crispy, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Repeat to fry more dumplings in additional batches, as desired, adding more water and oil and adjusting the heat as needed to prevent the dumplings from burning.
Remove from the pan and serve with your favorite dipping sauce.
Yield: about 50 dumplings
Make ahead: Lightly dust formed dumplings with flour so the skins don’t crack. Transfer the dumplings to a baking sheet, making sure they are not touching, and freeze them. Once frozen, place them into freezer containers and freeze for up to 3 months.
Storage notes: Leftover dumplings can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Where to buy: Shaoxing cooking wine can be found at Asian grocery stores or online.
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