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Dumplings: Holiday, History, and Happiness--Part II
Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods
Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 29, 30, 33, 35, 36, and 37
In the previous issue, Part I of this article in Volume 15(2) on pages 11, 12, and 13, it ended talking about New Year dumplings. Other Chinese holidays also have special dumplings. For example, during Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, dumplings can be shaped like big moons called zong zi. They and some recipes were included in Volume 8(3) on pages 5 and 8. Most often wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large leaves, their shapes and fillings do vary. Some exteriors are multi-layered, one is inside the leaf wrapping, another of glutinous rice, is inside that one. Sometimes there are other fillings within these layers, other times inside both of them.
For the Mid-Autumn Festival, dumplings are usually bigger. These are called tangyuan or moon cakes. Not everyone thinks of them as a dumpling, but they are stuffed, often with two exterior layers. In different regions and among different minority populations, they were made in special ways. These and zongzi are rarely, if ever, eaten as a meal, but rather as between meals snacks. Check out this magazine's index listing to locate articles and recipes for these holidays. Also check recipe listings for other dumplings.
General stories and festivities aside, types of dumplings, their fillings, and the places they are made fascinate. For example, har gao, which in English translates to 'shrimp dumplings' are famous and fantastic. Their origin is reportedly in Guangzhou, and differences in their fillings are legion. There can be lots or little shrimp, they can be minced or ground, chopped in large pieces, or left whole. No matter their texture, other foods can be added, the most common are minced water chestnuts. Unlabeled, these and other dumplings are illustrated in this article, can you tell which is which?
Another question, when you make the siu mai in this article, can you taste differences between it and the one in Volume 15(2) on page 12? One southern chef told us he judges his culinary compatriots by tasting their har gao. When he finds the dough thick and pasty, and the shrimp not sweet, he gets up, pays promptly, and points himself towards another dim sum emporia. Sometimes he evaluates dim sum chefs tasting their fried taro dumplings. Before so doing, he puts one of them on his napkin checking it in a few minutes for an oil ring. He believes no properly fried food should stain a napkin.
In Shanghai, xia long bao or soup dumplings are popular and savory. This same chef calls them his culinary Shanghai barometer. Chefs in the know, he says, make theirs tender and filled with minced pork with or without crab meat. He likes his with and spurting hot soup on the very first bite. He bristles when in the United States. Here, in this country, for safety's sake almost all of them come swimming in a bowl of soup, not in a steamer basket. He wonders why Americans do not know to put a soup dumpling on a Chinese soup spoon with its garlic-laden-soy sauce? Can't they bite gently into a soup dumpling, he asks, and not be scalded by the soup in these dumplings?
In Dongbei, China's East-North region of three provinces sandwiched between Russia and Korea, and in the Shandong province, dumplings are large, chewy, and filled with leeks, lamb or another meat, and often mixed with pickled cabbage. Some come filled with pumpkin and other vegetables. He wonders why customers complain that they do not look pretty. He once tried to explain that China's northeast is, weather-wise, a tough place that cares not about looks but does care about taste.
In the north, dim sum is called dian xin. There, rarely do dumplings look as delicate as they do in the south. In Dongbei, he said, the very cold winter and Russian influences reflect that. He continued to advise that dumplings and other foods often taste of pickles known to the Koreans as kimchi. They often have cabbage and/or another pickled filling within. These people in the north like their foods simple and satisfying, which is, he said, "more important than being beautiful."
In Xian, the birthplace of northern-style dumplings, there are many, many kinds made in many sizes and with many fillings and many exteriors. There are many ways to prepare them, but steamed is preferred. We once ate in a dumpling restaurant in that city that made more than a hundred different kinds on any given day. We had a dumpling banquet that began with a very big dumpling large enough to fill the plate. Our notes indicate this dumpling meal included forty-six different dumplings, and after that huge one, each was smaller than the previous, the very last course was not one but many dumplings, each about the size of a small nail on one's smallest finger. These finales came in a bowl, twenty tiny white ones swimming in sweet soup.
In Hong Kong, we found local dumplings wrapped in a lightly tinged yellow dough that were fine and fantastic. They were often filled with crab or another high-priced ingredient. Some were with lots, others with but a little amount of shark's fins, bird's nests, hair seaweed, etc. Dumplings in that city can be loaded with prestige, their expensive contents sticking out for everyone's viewing.
In Suzhou, at the Pine and Crane Tower Restaurant, in the 1980's we ate a first course never to be forgotten. On one plate and for the ten of us at one table were ten different fruit and vegetable dumplings worthy of a featured spot in a museum. Each one was colored, steamed, filled with the food it resembled, and looking like that fruit or vegetable miniaturized. Each was loaded with taste and looked and tasted like the real thing. Pity was that each of us only had one of these two inch beauties. I was lucky, my husband and I shared.
These days, at banquets or back-alley snack shops, rarely are dumplings fancy, rarely that unusual, often even not that good. While they come with all kinds of interiors and exteriors, most people do not know to eat slowly savoring every bite. We watch folk devouring them all-too-quickly, good, bad, or in-between; do they even know what they are tasting?
Modern takes on traditional dumplings can touch many a heart. May they never go out of style; and quite the contrary, may they be improved at every turn and twist of their dough. One letter to this editor asked about making a cocktail party using different Chinese dumplings and moon cakes and nothing else. Why not, we replied, and suggested they get ideas from our website and the Fall 1995 article by Wonona Chang.
Never heard from them again. Still wonder what they learned and what they did, and how successful it was? Did they use items in volumes 2(3), 3(3), 4(3), and 5(1) as we recommended? Did they serve Moon Cakes, small or large? Did they cut them into pieces as Chinese people do, sharing them? We never had any with an alcoholic beverage, but who are we to say that they should not be so consumed.
Past issues have recipes for wrapped foods, some dumplings and some not. In the Winter 1995 issue, there was a recipe for Spring Rolls, a 'wrapped' notion. In the third issue of 1996, Taiwanese dumpling-type pastries could qualify. Check out the dozens of others in the past fifty-plus issues, a few gracing covers in or out of their steamer baskets. Many were not named a 'dumpling' but they really could be considered one.
One reader wrote he did not believe the Chinese had baked dumplings or other pastries. But King Wu of the State of Zhou, circa the 16th century BCE was honored by pastry chefs. They called him 'the father of their trade' and credit him with tai shi bing or baked flat cakes covered with sesame seeds. Some of these bing items come filled, some filled with sesame seed paste; are these not dumplings?
King Wu was given credit by these same pastry chefs for another bakery product, a honey cake called mier, known as zhang huang. There is a record of a mier made during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE); was it filled? Chinese chefs can bake dumplings and other foods in their woks and metal can-like-ovens with and without fillings.
Many chefs concentrate on dough for dumpling exteriors, but these exteriors can and do vary. They can be made with wheat, rice, taro, or any other flour alone or mixed with another. The outsides or the interiors can be fresh or dried vegetables or various leaves, even meats. We have seen them with slices of pumpkin, eggplant, pepper, mushroom, or another vegetable on the outside or within. Some even are made with fruits outside or in, such as banana skins, fruit peel, sheets of bean curd, seaweed, or anything else you can think of. Recipes for different dumplings follow this article; they are, excuse the expression, the tip of the dumpling ice-berg whose very leaves can also be used as wrappings.
Dumpling fillings are more varied, and can be sweet, salty, savory, spicy, sour, or bitter. Dumplings can be as small as the ones we had in Suzhou or as large or even larger than the great ones we wrote about at VANESSA'S DUMPLINGS, at 220 East 14th Street, New York NY; phone: 212/529-1329. Speaking of Vanessa's; she recently re-vamped, expanded, and re-opened her place at 118A Eldridge Street between East Broadway and East Houston Street. Harley Spiller visited this 'old pro' at her newest place and wrote about it on pages 18 and 19 in this issue. We were there two days after that; folks were still waiting at her counter three deep. We adored her Pancake with Peking Duck and many of her other offerings. Vanessa is still making super and super-affordable dumplings in many locations. Wish we lived in New York City to enjoy them more often!
A question often asked is: Are dumplings really Chinese? A few argue that originally they came from Central Asia where they cook theirs on an iron grill. Others disagree and say there are no records that pre-date Chinese dumplings, and that the Chinese invented these dough-filled foods. A food historian would want a definitive answer, we just know that Chinese dumplings are delicious, and for hundreds if not thousands of years, large tea houses boast making and having made thousands of varieties. Few have less than a dozen, most brag they have fifty or more at any given time, and some adhere to ancient traditions and cook theirs on iron grills as pot-stickers.
In China, an ancient dumpling emporium and restaurant, the PAN HSI at 151 Longjin Road West, in the Liwan District in Guangzhou; phone 8181-5955, still makes magnificent-looking dumplings. This multi-floored cavernous eatery makes beauties that look like and taste like heavenly fish and other animals.
Restaurants in the United States such as YANK SING at 49 Stevenson Street in San Francosco CA 94105; phone: 415/957-7300 make gorgeous looking ones resembling animals and vegetables. Those looking like fish are illustrated on this page.
In New York City, CHINATOWN BRASSERIE at 380 Lafayette Street; phone: 212/533-7000, makes many dim sum delights. They have been illustrated in the New York Times and elsewhere, are gorgeous and delicate, one triangular-shaped looks like a modern fish, eyes looking at everyone who enjoys it.
Some dumpling eateries including ROLL AND DOUGH at 135 West 3rd Street also in Manhattan's New York NY 10012; phone 212/253-2890 make many bing, their large flat stuffed ones are akin to dumplings. They have an assortment, also soups to put them in, and a few dishes to accompany them. Their take-away menu is most helpful, its instructions are reprinted on this page to help you take care of your dumplings. It tells how to heat them in the microwave, steamer, etc. be they fresh, refrigerated, or frozen. Roll and Dough makes fourteen stuffed bing-pancake-like dumplings, the same number of different steamed or baked buns, ten different dumplings, and lots of soups, rice and noodle dishes, and fruit and vegetable drinks to go with them. They sell theirs fresh, refrigerated, and frozen.
When we ask dumpling makers about the origin of dumplings, every one says they originally were Chinese, and though every country can boast a dough-filled food or two, the Chinese have made them continuously for a few thousand years and perfected them. They also say that the Chinese have the largest selection of dumplings in the world. Perhaps they know this food item has been made and enjoyed in China at least since the first century BCE, or even before. They also advise how to make them.
These very same dumpling makers remind us they were commonly called hun tons and that their shapes and fillings have changed over time. One said to tell readers that some are made with yeast, others only flour and water, some are less than delectable, and some are devastatingly delicious. They also said that some wrap theirs in dough made with lard, some include a mite of sugar, others put ground dry fish in their flour wrappings, and on and on.
Dumplings are still evolving and probably always will. They can be filled with chicken, pork, lamb, any number of different meats, fish, and other foods of the sea, and/or with fruits and vegetables of every sort. Some have eggs within or without. Some are round, oval, circular, square, thick, thin, of any color imaginable, and any flavor one can dream of. If they have an outside and an inside, they like to call them dumplings, and these dumpling makers say that is all that is important.
Delightful, delicious, and different, designer or not, dumplings are great alone or in combination with other foods. Make or purchase them, serve or be served some, eat them in any number of ways and with any number of dips or dishes; simply delight in devouring them.
Some recipes follow to help you make your own. They are an assortment, each wrapped or filled differently. Do enjoy!
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