What is the potential of some flour and a little water? This time of year, in our home, those humble ingredients are mixed together to become part of a tradition that stretches all the way to China—and back in time thousands of years.
When we first brought our babies home, we despaired of being able to give them a connection to Chinese culture in any deeply meaningful way. Living in Maine, how could we begin to understand the complexity of one of the world's oldest and richest cultures? I remember thinking, How can we do it without a Chinese grandmother to cook and tell stories and impart wisdom handed down by generations?
We were fortunate to find other families with ties to China. With them, we celebrate each new year with dancing and singing and dumpling-making. Other families share their grandmothers and those grandmothers share their wisdom—whether it be the finer points of mah jongg or the secrets of making dumpling wrappers.
This Chinese New Year's eve, we were snowed in. But we had flour and water and the sweet promise of a day coming soon when the music would soar and the children would dance and the dragon would wind through the swirling crowd.
As families around the world did that night, we made dumplings according to the wisdom passed down to us by loving grandmothers.
We took about two cups of flour and mixed it with about a half-cup of water that is just off the boil. We stirred it with wok-size chopsticks counter-clockwise, and then when we could gather it into a ragged ball, we began to knead it with our hands. When it was soft as an earlobe (that tip could only come from a grandmother, no?), we wrapped it in plastic wrap and let it rest for a few minutes.
Then we rolled it into a snake and pinched off pieces about as big as a man's thumb. (One of our favorite cooks does it by scissoring the base of her thumb against the base of her first digit.)
Next we wielded our dumpling rollers. (One of our dearest grandmothers still uses a rung off a chair that she found decades ago, but Birch made the girls each a rolling pin from a wooden dowel. Blossom named hers Half Apple and Fern calls hers Bamboo. They use them for cookie dough at Christmas and pie crust any old time and dumplings at Chinese New Year. Even though the rollers are only about five years old now, they are already silky from rolling between the pads of little hands and dough.)
The trick to dumpling wrappers is to flatten the dough lump in one direction then another, then turn the dough and take a swipe here and a swipe there, then turn it again. With practice, a circle emerges.
On New Years' Eve, we rolled and rolled.
Then, onto the full-moon dumpling wrapper went a little filling.
A finger dipped in water traced the outer edge, and then one side got folded up until the rims touched.
Pleating is an art. We are still learning that art and will never be as fast as the grandmothers who are patient in showing us; their fingers fly. We feel clumsy in comparison. But, the eating is so good that we are willing to forgive ourselves some lumpy dumplings. So we cradled the filled dumpling and pinched and pleated from one end to the next.
Our filling was simple. We've done all kinds of elaborate fillings through the years and eaten some wondrous fillings created by our friends. But on a snowy night at home, it's always possible to have some kind of dumplings.
Simple and Fast Dumpling Filling
1/2 pound ground meat (we used turkey)
1/2 cup chopped scallion greens (we didn't have Chinese chives)
a pinch of salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons of rice wine
a grind of pepper
1/2 teaspoon (or more, to taste) of sesame oil
Mix all the ingredients together.
Place the dumplings in a bamboo steamer and steam over high heat for about 14 minutes. Test whether the dumplings are done by cutting one open.
Our dipping sauce recipe is here.
We ate ours as we are eating all meals these cold nights...crouched around the coffee table by the fire. Even though we were one little family tucked away in one little home, we were part of a grand tradition that encircled the globe that night.
Happy Year of the Rabbit!