I grew up eating one type of dumpling—the ones my mom made. They were juicy, with the perfect combination of lean and fatty pork, and just the right amount of napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. I had no desire to try any other types of dumplings because these were it. Why try to seek perfection when it's already right in front of you? But that all changed during my college summer months working as a waitress at my uncle's Chinese restaurant. I didn't just discover that my heart has enough room to love two dumplings—to my surprise it was a vegetarian dumpling.
What I love most about my uncle's veggie dumplings is the texture of the filling. It isn't just tofu and vegetables, and it isn't just all vegetables. It's a mix of carrots and napa cabbage for sweetness; chopped wood ear mushrooms for crunch; and, instead of firm tofu, it had seitan. This is my adaptation of my uncle's vegetarian dumplings. It's vegan-friendly and takes only five to six minutes to pan-fry. Just like my uncle's dumplings, there's carrots and cabbage for sweetness, wood ear mushroom for crunch, and instead of just seitan, there's also five spiced tofu for flavor and texture.
For the filling of the dumplings, the way ingredients are prepped is just as important as the mix of ingredients themselves. For the best flavor and texture, you want to ensure that all of the fillings are diced to identical size, starting with the carrots.
You're going for a fine dice here (also known as a "brunoise"). Start by cutting the carrot into planks (a Japanese mandoline is great for making these first cuts). Stack the planks and slice them into thin matchsticks, then cut those matchsticks crosswise into fine dice.
Make sure all the dices are about the same size. You don't want to mince the ingredients, so don't make the cuts too fine, either. When you bite into the dumpling you want to be able to tell there's carrots and seitan inside. Check out this knife skills slideshow for more details on dicing carrots.
Five spice tofu is next. With the practice you got on the carrots, this should be a snap. Five spice tofu can be found in most Asian markets, though you can substitute plain firm tofu if you can't find it.
...followed by seitan...
...and wood ear mushrooms. I get my wood ear mushrooms dried in Chinatown (you can also buy them online) and rehydrate them by soaking them in water for about 20 minutes before patting dry and dicing.
Cabbage is the last ingredient. All of the fillings get combined and mixed up with aromatics and seasonings: some garlic, scallion, sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce, white pepper, and just a touch of cornstarch to help bind it together.
Once you have all your ingredients prepped, seasoned, and mixed, it's time to wrap the dumplings. For some, this is the fun part of homemade dumplings, but for others it's the main reason why they avoid making dumplings at home. I've had experiences wrapping a good number of dumplings in my time, and here the thing: Even with all the practice, my dumplings aren't perfect. And that's 100% okay.
My dumplings aren't going to win any beauty pageants. They're a little ugly, with odd numbers of pleats and strange deformities. But they're mighty tasty, which is what really matters, so don't get discouraged.
For simplicity, I use store-bought wrappers. Once you open up the package of wrappers, it's important to work relatively quickly so those wrappers don't dry out. Covering them with plastic wrap or a towel in between dumplings can help.
Before you start wrapping, have all your items—wrappers, filling, a small bowl of water, and a large plate for finished dumplings—ready.
To wrap the dumplings, place a little less than a tablespoon of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Placing too much filling will make it difficult to seal, but too little will leave you with sad, flat dumplings.
Next, dip one finger in water, and wet half of the outer edges of the dumpling. Fold the wrapper in half and pinch just the center together.
Starting from the center, and working toward the right, start pleating one side of the dumpling. The side of the skin facing you should have overlapping pleats, while the back side of the dumpling should remain smooth. This will help form it into a little crescent-shaped purse.
As you make your pleats, press them tightly against the back of the wrapper, and then repeat with the left side.
Don't care about pleats? In a rush? Fingers too unwieldy? Another way to wrap them is to just fold the wrapper in half and seal.
With vegetable dumplings, it's best to pan-fry your dumplings as soon as you finish wrapping them. They don't hold up well sitting in the fridge for too long; the dough starts to get soggy.
But if you do want to wrap them in advance, make sure it's less than an hour before cooking, and be sure to line the bottom on your plate with wax paper and a sprinkle of flour to prevent sticking. You can also steam the wrapped dumplings first, chill them, and finish them off by pan-frying later.
Pan-fried dumplings are cooked in a three-stage process. First they're fried in oil, then they're steamed, and finally they're re-fried to crisp up their bottoms. You can use a wok, but a non-stick skillet works fine. Preheat some vegetable oil in a pan, then add the dumplings in. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan, and make sure the dumplings aren't touching each other.
Cook the dumplings over moderately high heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until they're crisp and brown on the bottom.
Next, add a quarter cup of water to the pan. It should immediately start steaming. Clamp on a lid and let the dumplings steam for 2 minutes. As the dumplings steam, the water will evaporate. This doesn't take long; when more than half of the water is gone, remove the lid and let the dumplings continue cooking. The dumplings are actually done now, but you want bottoms to be crispy.
As soon as the bottoms are nice and browned, place them on top of a few layers of paper towels to blot off any excess oil.
When you're all finished, each dumpling should be packed with flavor, providing a great contrast of crisp, tender, and moist textures. I serve the dumplings with an easy dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and scallion.
About the Author: I was born in Guangzhou, the birthplace of dim sum, and raised in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia. As a sibling-less child, cooking was a way to cure after school snack attacks and a way to keep myself entertain. That's how my love for food and cooking started, and it continues to grow. I blog at friedwontons4u.com and I am on twitter @friedwontons4u.