Ní hào, and welcome back! I hope you all had a lovely summer. I sure did. In China. Where I was. Which was awesome.
If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know that there’s no way to explain this beautiful but strange country. If you want to share some of my feelings, check out this video. It was the number one hit while I was in China, which meant that you heard it in every shop, taxi and bar. It takes you through a whole range of emotions, from initial curiosity, to surprise, puzzlement, bewilderment, then acceptance and finally joy and exaltation – pretty much exactly what my trip in China did to me.
There’s two things that everyone knows about China: it’s very, very, VERY big, and there’s lots and lots and lots of people. Because everyone always mentions this whenever someone mentions China, you think you’re prepared for it before you go. But tell you what, you’re not. Nothing can prepare you for the amount of people in and the size of that country. It’s overwhelming. It’s also a slight problem if you want to go anywhere, because trains are often sold out – you might be able to get a standing ticket, but on a 20-hour trip, that’s not really a viable option. Inexperienced foreigners like me would never be able to get to the more comfortable patches of floor and I’d probably end up sleeping next to or in a toilet.
I ended up changing my itinerary a few times to adapt it to what was available, and ironically I took a big detour to Sichuan in order to arrive to Shanghai sooner – tickets from Xi’an were sold out until about two days before my flight would leave from Shanghai, but from Chengdu there were a lot more options. This was great, because it meant I could finally try the famous cuisine of Sichuan, which I would have missed out on otherwise. However, it also meant that I was constantly running around catching trains and buses to new places, and by the time I made it to Shanghai, I was exhausted.
So what do you do when you’re exhausted? Something you like, something you’re good at, something that relaxes you: I went to do a cooking course! I learned how to make a few dim sun dishes, but the favourite – everyone’s favourite, ever – were jiaozi, or dumplings! These are not the steamed type, but the fried ones like you see in Shanghai quite a lot. Slightly more unhealthy, but delicious all the same. The original recipe asks for all kinds of funky products that are kinda hard to come by around here, so I’ve tried to make them with ingredients that are more readily available here in Italy. Worked out just fine. Still, go on a quick trip to your local Chinese supermarket, it’ll be fun and you’ll find some of the slightly more exotic stuff there.
For about 20 dumplings, which is enough for 2 people to stuff their faces, or as a starter for 4, use:
- 150 gr flour
- about 100 ml of warm water
- 225 gr of pork sausages – normal or spicy, or go half and half like I did
- one shallot
- 2 tsp of grated or very finely chopped ginger
- 2 tbsp of light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp of sesame oil
- 1 tbsp of white wine – strictly speaking Chinese cooking wine, but if you can’t find any, regular white wine will do
- a pinch of sugar, salt and white pepper
to serve, optional:
- some sesame seed
- some spring onion
- Chinese black vinegar, or any kind of vinegar you have lying around
Here, have you ever had that moment where you read a recipe and you think, “Jesus, sesame oil, I’m not gonna buy an entire bottle of that, what else am I ever going to use that for”? Well, for this! Buy some now, you won’t regret it.
Before anything else, make the dough. You pour the flour onto your work surface and you make a little volcano with a moat, like so:
Pour in about half of the warm water, and start mixing it – use your hands or something like a spatula if you prefer. Add more water if you need to – the dough needs to be very firm and not sticky, but smooth. To get it firm and smooth, you’ll need to knead quite violently. You’ll know when it’s done, you’ll see.
Now grab a rolling pin and start rolling out your dough like so:
Repeat until your dough has a good consistency. Now roll it up tightly, and pack it in cling film. Put it aside, it can have a little rest while you make the filling.
For your filling, squeeze the sausage meat out of the sausage and into a bowl. Finely chop your shallot and add it to the mixture. Add all of the liquids and the sugar, salt and pepper, and mix well. That’s your filling done, easy as that.
Back to the dough.
You grab your dough roll and chop it in half (for easier handling). Now start rolling it out into a long dough snake, which you chop up in about ten small pieces. These pieces you put on their side (so that the spirally side, which after all this rolling shouldn’t be too spirally anymore, is up). Squeeze them together a bit more, then flatten them down with your hand so you get small round pieces of dough.
Roll these pieces out with a rolling pin (or a bottle, if you don’t own a rolling pin). There’s a technique to this: you roll the rolling pin up to the centre of the dough circle, holding the other half with your fingers. Then you rotate it by only a few degrees, and you repeat. This way, you’ll get perfect dough circles that are large and thin enough to fill and fold closed. You want a diameter of about 10 cm. (Do the same with the other half of the dough, of course.)
Now you can start the filling and folding. Place a dough slab on your hand, put some filling in (as much as possible whilst still being able to close the dumpling well – this might take some experimenting at first), and squeeze it closed at the centre. Then make two more folds on each side: starting from the centre, fold the side that’s furthest away from you into the centre. This is difficult to explain – check out some pictures:
Two folds on the left, two on the right, all directed towards the centre. See what I mean? I hope so. Squeeze all the folds hard – you don’t want your dumplings opening whilst you’re cooking them.
Heat some oil in a frying pan. When it’s pretty hot, gently place your dumplings in there. Medium-high heat, let them fry until the bottom is golden brown. Make sure you use enough oil – rotate the pan a bit so the sides cook, too. When the dumplings are golden brown on the bottom, add a small cup of water to the pan and stick a lid on. This way the tops will cook, too.
The dumplings will need about 6-8 minutes once you pour the water in. Take one out and cut it open to see if they’re done if you’re unsure.
Sprinkle some sesame seed and spring onion on top, and dip them in vinegar before putting them in your mouth.