Sunday, 16 January 2011

More Dumplings Please, Mom! (Part 1)

Eating together as a family is important not only to my family and me, but also in Chinese culture in general.  It is therefore not surprising to me that in Chinese cuisine as well as in others where eating as a family is important, some foods are traditionally made by a family as a whole as well.  Take jiaozi, a form of Chinese dumpling, for example.  In our household when my sister and I were old enough to competently help in the ktichen, we massed produced the dumplings in the following manner:
  1. Mom and Dad would prepare the pork-and-vegetable filling, sometimes a couple of days in advance;
  2. Dad would prepare the dough for the wrappers;
  3. I would flatten and cut the dough to create the wrappers;
  4. Mom and sis would fill the wrappers and shape the dumplings; and
  5. Dad would pan-fry the dumplings that evening for dinner, with the majority rest of the raw dumplings storedi n the freezer for future use.

Though I didn't raise the idea of having jiaozi during my stay in Ottawa, my mother thought we should have some partly since the whole family was already here and partly since jiaozi is also a traditional Chinese New Year food (on top of being a northern Chinese staple).  With Chinese New Year in 2011 being on February 3, meaning my sister and I would be unable to be together with our parents, it made sense to make and eat some on our Gregorian calendar's New Year while our family was still together.  This time, however, with my sister having cooked a feast on New Year's Eve, she was given a break from helping out.
Usually our dumplings' fillings consisted bascially of lean pork and cabbage.  Though green cabbage was used in the past, recently my parents discovered another cabbage variety which in Chinese is literally translated as Goryeo (Koryō) Vegetable.  (The modern term Korea is derived from Goryeo, a medieval kingdom that encompassed virtually the entire Korean peninsula.)  My mother found this variety to be less compact and dense compared to the green cabbage, as well as the leaves being slightly less tough to the bite.
My parents usually use pork tenderloin, trimmed of what little fat there may be.  They also grind the meat themselves with a multipurpose machine that was bought about the time I was born and is still alive and kicking.  Thanks to technology, old as it may be, they don't have to do it the old fashion way by hacking at the meat with a cleaver in each hand.  Granted, using lean pork means that the filling will be less tender and less moist, but this version, along with pan-frying the final products with minimal amounts of oil, make these dumplings as healthy as possible.

With the filling ready, Dad and I went to work creating the wrappers for Mom.  I've had the experience of flattening both jiaozi wrapper dough as well as perogy wrapper dough, and trust me, flattening jiaozi wrapper dough was a cakewalk!  I'm not sure what makes up perogy wrapper dough, but I knew that jiaozi wrapper dough consists only of flour and water.  In any case, jiaozi wrapper dough was comparatively more elastic and didn't feel as dense as perogy wrapper dough, for which my arm muscles were thankful.  After flattening the dough to a thickness of less than 2mm, I cut the wrappers using a ~10cm/~3" diameter cutter, creating batches of dumplings for Mom to fill while Dad and I created more wrappers with a following batch of dough.
Usually we'd make enough dumplings to fill two large baking trays.  Flour is dusted on the tray to prevent sticking and all the jiaozi have a small gap between each of them to prevent any sticking.  The separation also prevents the jiaozi from being frozen together as the ones we cannot eat that night are left to freeze.  Usually the freezing is done in the basement chest freezer, but, on the occasional and well-timed serious winter cold snap, a folded-down minivan van bench in our attached garage makes for a convenient alternative location.
We'd usually intentionally make more dough than warranted to make dumplings to make green onion pancakes.  Though flat like pancakes, perhaps these are better classified as biscuits rather than pancakes in terms of their consistency.  These are easy to make by sprinkling chopped green onions on a relatively small circular flat piece of dough and folding and flattening this dough again and again.  The result is a chewy multi-layered pan-fried biscuit with the sweetness of the green onions scattered within it.  Salt is added into the dough mixture rather than sprinkled with the onions to ensure a more even and consistent saltiness in all the green onion pancakes.

Though this time a package of noodles was used, in the past we'd sometimes also use some leftover dough to make noodles, sometimes by folding over the flat dough loosely and cutting noodles with a knife, sometimes by using the pasta machine.  When noodles are called for, Mom would usually make a Taiwanese style Noodles in Ground Pork Sauce.  A sprinkling of shredded cucumber and some Chinese black vinegar to taste provide nice touches to this dish.
Almost always when jiaozi are made, we'd also have Sweet and Sour Soup.  This time around no meat was added to the soup, but it was still very hearty, especially compared to what's often served in restaurants, with plenty of ingredients, including tofu, shredded carrots, shredded bamboo shoots, shredded wood ears (a type of fungi), sliced reconstituted shiitakes and egg whites.

Of course, there are the jiaozi themselves.  They are pan-fried in a pre-heated cast-iron pan with a little bit of oil, then splahed with some water and covered to allow the steam to cook the filling.  Once the cooking is done the lid is removed to allow for evaporation, and the jiaozi are removed depending on how brown and crispy the jiaozi are desired.  Though they can be eaten on their own, it would never hurt to sprinkle a soy-vinegar sauce.  Personally, I like to bite of one end and add a couple of drops of the sauce into the filling, allowing the sauce to permeate throughout the dumpling when I bite into the rest of it.

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