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Like tamales, Asian dumplings easier to make with friends

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Asian dumplings can be stuffed with more fillings than there are days of the year, but during Chinese New Year celebrations in a few weeks, tradition has it that they are bursting with good fortune for the new year.

Puffs, potstickers, pearl dumplings and pork buns have become an American obsession in recent years as awareness of Asian culture spreads, says Andrea Nguyen, whose newest book, "Asian Dumplings" (Ten Speed Press, $30), covers dumplings from more than a dozen Asian countries. "There's been this change, driven by young people, who are eating and wanting bigger flavors." Just look at Mexican food in a place like Austin, she says. "You guys get it. People are open to flavors."

In Austin, dumpling fanatics have plenty of options when eating out — Fortune, Get Sum Dim Sum and Chinatown, to name a few — but Nguyen's book shows people that by using ingredients and tools that are probably already in their kitchens, they can make them at home. The basic dumpling dough, for example, is made from water and flour and can be rolled out and stuffed with almost any combination of ingredients.

Nguyen was a kid growing up in Southern California when she first started making wontons and potstickers with her older sisters. "It was our little time to chitchat and gossip," she says. "There was always that very communal feeling about making dumplings. It was a mini party."

She continues to host dumpling-making parties for friends and family near her home in California. "You get to eat many different kinds (of dumplings), and you don't have to do as much work. That's my motivation," she says. Parties where guests get to help fill and shape the dumplings are a convivial way to break the ice. (Think of Texas families making tamales together before the holidays.) "It's intimidating for people at first," she says. "But they jump in and work with their hands."

To celebrate the Chinese New Year, which falls on Valentine's Day this year, people in Northern China make dumplings shaped like ancient Chinese money, which tradition says will bring prosperity in the coming year.

If you're looking for good luck or just an excuse to get friends together in the kitchen, dumplings, especially potstickers, are the perfect party food. Not only are they relatively easy to assemble and appealing to even non-adventurous eaters, the ingredients can be found at any supermarket. "I wanted to take familiar ingredients and exoticize them," Nguyen says.

What distinguishes potstickers from other dumplings isn't the filling but the method of cooking — frying, then steaming in the same pan — which creates a crispy bottom layer and a top that's chewy without being tough. And although the often filling gets all the attention, the supple texture of fresh skins is what really makes from-scratch dumplings worth the effort.

"What's most important is the wrapper," Nguyen says. You can swap out ingredients and customize the fillings, but the wrapper is what sets various kinds of dumplings apart. Nguyen gives a few tips in the book for using store-bought wrappers, but she recommends at least trying to make skins from scratch before resorting to pre-made. Nguyen says you can even color the dough by using spinach, carrot juice or turmeric.

Other starches, including glutinous rice and tapioca flour that can be bought at Asian grocery stores, create more transparent and malleable wrappers that are used in savory Chiu Chow dumplings and other dim sum favorites.

But why go to the hassle of making dumplings when they are available in most grocery stores? Pre-made dumplings tend to be full of MSG and more salt than should be consumed in a whole day. Plus, most stores, with the exception of some Asian markets like MT Supermarket in North Austin, have only a few choices of filling.

To make them at home, you'll need a floured surface and a rolling pin, as well as ingredients like ginger, ground pork, scallions and rice vinegar. A smaller wooden rod or chopstick will also allow you to thin out the edges of the dough and leave a thicker, quarter-sized "belly" in the center. This extra dough in the middle helps keep the filling inside while steaming, frying or boiling. In the book, Nguyen offers clear, detailed instructions for creating more than half a dozen different shapes, but my favorite — and the most forgiving — was the pea pod, a crescent moon-shaped dumpling sealed with crimped edges.

Nguyen says beginners should remember that perfectly shaped dumplings taste just as good as the lumpy, asymmetrical ones. "Just get them closed and they'll taste great," she says. "They all have character. Even I keep practicing." Homemade dumplings are more laborious than your average weeknight meal, so Nguyen recommends making a double batch and setting aside half to freeze. (After shaping them, place dumplings on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze for 1 hour. Transfer to a freezer bag. When you're ready to eat them, partially thaw them on the counter and then cook as usual.)

Because dumpling-making is an intricate task, Nguyen knew when she started writing the book that she wanted a photographer who could capture both the details and beauty of the process. She sought out Austin photojournalist Penny De Los Santos, whose work in the pages of Saveur magazine caught Nguyen's eye. "I wanted a dynamic, engaged set of images .... She captures the human aspect of food."

Potstickers and dumplings steamed in stacked bamboo steamers are the most basic of the dumplings outlined in Nguyen's book, but she says as readers become more experienced, they often reach out to her on Twitter (@aqnguyen) or the blog based on the book (AsianDumplingTips.com) with questions. "It's like I'm teaching a large group of people online."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Japanese Pork and Shrimp Pot Stickers

Makes 32 dumplings, serving 4 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a snack or starter

2 cups lightly packed, finely chopped napa cabbage, cut from whole leaves (about 7 ounces)

1/2 tsp. plus 1/4 tsp. salt

2 cloves garlic, minced and crushed into a paste

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger, or 1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger

2 Tbsp. chopped Chinese chives or scallions (white and green parts)

6 oz. ground pork, fattier kind preferred, coarsely chopped to loosen

1/3 lb. medium shrimp, shelled, deveined and chopped (41/2 oz. net weight)

Scant 1/4 tsp. sugar

Generous 1/2 tsp. black pepper

1 1/2 Tbsp. Japanese soy sauce or light (regular) soy sauce

1 Tbsp. sake

1 tsp. sesame oil

1 lb. Basic Dumpling Dough (see recipe below)

Canola oil or sesame oil or a combination of both, for pan-frying

5 Tbsp. Japanese soy sauce or light soy sauce

2 1/2 Tbsp. unseasoned rice vinegar

1/2 to 1 tsp. chile oil

To make the filling, in a large bowl, toss cabbage with 1/2 tsp. salt. Set aside for about 15 minutes to draw out excess moisture. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse and drain again. To remove more moisture, squeeze the cabbage over the sink. You should have about 1/2 cup firmly packed cabbage.

Transfer cabbage to a bowl and add garlic, ginger, Chinese chives, pork and shrimp. Stir and lightly mash the ingredients so that they start coming together.

In a small bowl, stir together remaining 1/4 tsp. salt, sugar, pepper, soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Pour seasonings over meat and cabbage mixture, then stir and fold ingredients together. Once you have broken up the large chunks of pork so none are visible, briskly stir to blend the ingredients into a cohesive, thick mixture. To develop the flavors, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. You should have about 2 cups of filling. (The filling can be prepared 1 day ahead and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature before assembling the dumplings.)

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and form 16 wrappers from half the dough. To make wrappers, roll dough into a 1-inch thick log and cut into 16 pieces. Flatten each piece to 1/8-inch thick with a heavy-bottom measuring cup or tortilla press. Using a chopstick or small wooden rod, thin the edges of each circle, leaving a 1/8-inc thick "belly" in the center. Aim for wrappers that are about 31/4 inches in diameter. For each dumpling, hold a wrapper in a slightly cupped hand. Scoop up about 1 Tbsp. of filling and position it slightly off-center toward the upper half of the wrapper, pressing and shaping it into a flat mound and keeping about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of wrapper clear on all sides. Fold, pleat and press to enclose the filling and create a half-moon or peapod shape. Place the finished dumpling on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining wrappers, spacing them 1/2 inch apart. Keep the finished dumplings covered with a dry kitchen towel.

Once all the dumplings are assembled, they can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for several hours and then cooked straight from the refrigerator.

To pan-fry the dumplings, heat a medium or large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add about 2 Tbsp. canola oil. Add the dumplings one at a time, sealed edges up in a winding circle pattern or several straight rows. The dumplings may touch. Fry the dumplings for 1 to 2 minutes, until they're golden or light brown at the bottom.

Holding the lid close to the skillet to lessen the effect of water hitting hot oil, use a kettle or measuring cup to add water to a depth of about 1/4 inch; expect to use about 1/3 cup water. The water will immediately sputter and boil vigorously. Cover skillet with a lid or aluminum foil, lower the heat to medium and let the water bubble away until it is mostly gone, 8 to 10 minutes. After 6 to 8 minutes, move the lid or foil to allow steam to shoot out from underneath.

While the dumplings cook, combine the soy sauce, rice vinegar and chile oil in a small bowl to create a dipping sauce.

When the bubbling noise in the skillet turns into a gentle frying sound (a sign that most of the water is gone), remove the lid. Allow the dumplings to fry for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the bottoms are brown and crisp. Turn off the heat and wait until the sizzling stops before transferring the dumplings to a serving plate, using a spatula to lift up a few of them at a time. Display them with their bottoms up so that they remain crisp.

Serve immediately with the dipping sauce.

Basic Dumpling Dough

10 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

About 3/4 cup just-boiled water

To prepare the dough in a food processor, put flour in the work bowl. With the machine running, add 3/4 cup of water in a steady stream through the feed tube. As soon as all the water has been added, stop the machine and check the dough. It should look rough and feel soft but firm enough to hold its shape when pinched. If necessary, add water by the teaspoon or flour by the tablespoon. When satisfied, run the machine for another 5 to 10 seconds to further knead and form a ball around the blade. Avoid overworking the dough.

To make the dough by hand, put a bowl atop a kitchen towel to prevent it from slipping while you work. Put flour in a bowl and make a well in the center. Use a wooden spoon or bamboo rice paddle to stir the flour while you add 3/4 cup water in a steady stream. Aim to evenly moisten the flour. Knead the dough in the bowl to bring all the lumps into one mass; if the dough does not come together easily, add water by the teaspoon.

Regardless of the mixing method, transfer the dough and any bits to a work surface; flour your work surface only if necessary, and then sparingly. Knead the dough with the heel of your hand for about 30 seconds for machine-made dough, or about 2 minutes for handmade dough. The result should be nearly smooth and somewhat elastic. Press on the dough; it should slowly bounce back, with a light impression of your finger remaining. Place the dough in a zip-top plastic bag and seal tightly closed, expelling excess air. Set aside to rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours. The dough will steam up the plastic bag and become earlobe-soft, which makes wrappers easy to work with.

After resting, the dough can be used right away to form the wrappers. Or, refrigerate it overnight and returned it to room temperature before using.

— From 'Asian Dumplings' by Andrea Nguyen (Ten Speed Press, $30)