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Seriously Asian: All About Dumplings

"There's a difference between the pleasantly doughy boiled dumpling and the chewier, semi-translucent steamed dumpling."

I may be from Shanghai, but I think I make some pretty mean dumplings for a Southern gal. From buns, bread, and noodles, the Northern Chinese are adept at manipulating flour and water in a way that Southerners, being rice-eating folk, are not. So it wasn't until I traveled to Beijing that I began to understand the fine craft of dumplings.

Living in the capital, I probably consumed hundreds of dumplings in the course of three months. Over time I began to distinguish the merely good from the truly exceptional.

An exceptional dumpling fulfills two criteria: first, a supple, slightly chewy skin that ranges from delicately thin to heartily medium-thick. Second, a filling that's appropriately juicy, derived from the broth of meat or the liquid of vegetables.

Too many Chinese establishments use fat as a substitute rather than a complement to flavor. Over the course of a meal, the fat overload becomes more and more apparent. By making dumplings at home, you can control the proportions in your filling and experiment with the dough until you find a thickness you like.

Before you start on your dumpling-making adventures, consider tracking down a shop that's already producing exceptional specimens. How can you tell if a dumpling joint is good? At the risk of inviting legions of naysayers, I'll make the broad claim that when it comes to finding the best dumplings (or noodles) in town, the best establishments are usually tiny, unassuming shops. Whether grimy or spotlessly clean, it should be vaguely antiseptic yet redolent of pork, triggering the promise of Chinese authenticity. And whether you're searching for a regular dumpling spot in China or in Chinatown, if the service is brusque or shifty, the place probably has stellar dumplings.

The best dumplings I've eaten in the United States were in California at just such a place. Unlike the heartier dumplings I ate so frequently in Beijing, these dumpling were more delicate--the result of a thinner skin and being steamed rather than boiled. Once, while eating there, I was served my usual platter of dumplings, except this time they had been boiled.

"Excuse me," I said to the waiter. "I ordered these dumplings steamed, not boiled."

He grunted and retrieved his notepad from his back pocket. With another grunt, he swiped the plate of dumplings from the table and disappeared into the kitchen. A cacophony of Mandarin voices grew louder and angrier, with some Spanish vocabulary thrown into the mix. Two minutes later, a bamboo steamer, containing some very questionable dumplings, was set down.

I signaled to the waiter, who reluctantly walked back to my table.

"Did you or someone else just take the platter of boiled dumplings and transfer them into a steamer?" I asked, looking him in the eye.

Nothing good can come of accusing your waiter of subterfuge, even if you are in the right. Aggravated but hungry, I ate those boiled dumplings, vowing to learn how to make my own steamed dumplings. There's a difference between the pleasantly doughy boiled dumpling and the chewier, semi-translucent steamed dumpling. So my adventures in the dumpling craft began with a healthy bout of indignation, but my journey has a happy ending.

Once I finally began to make my own dumplings, I found, to my delight, that the dough is quite easy to make. It's a master dough made from nothing more than flour and boiling hot water. Once you get used to mixing the boiling water rapidly with the flour, the mass of wet dough will come together easily.

Recently, I've been playing around with fillings, taking liberties to borrow spices used in Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian cuisines. Cumin and garam masala are pungent complements to lamb, a meat more common to the Northern and Western parts of China as well as the Chinese Muslim-Islamic community. You can toast and grind your own spices for a garam masala mixture, but I usually use a good quality, pre-ground blend.

The skin of these lamb dumplings is thin yet chewy, with the delicate translucence that only a steamed preparation can offer. Biting into the dumpling, there should be just the slightest bit of resistance and elasticity as the skin tears, an indication of extensively-kneaded dough and developed glutens. For all-purpose flour, I've used both Gold Medal and King Arthur brands--the latter requires slightly more water, since it has a higher protein percentage.

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If you find the repetitive nature of prep work to be soothing or pleasant, consider hand-chopping your meat in lieu of using a meat grinder. With my trusty chef's knife, I cut up a frozen leg of lamb into paper-thin slices, then finished the rest with continual chopping. The ratio of meat-to-fat should be approximately 80 percent to 20 percent, and fatty ground pork can be added if necessary. An egg provides the proper binding, so the filling doesn't fall apart when bitten into.

While the proportion of fat guarantees the right meatiness and juiciness, vegetables also add moisture. Within the onion and leek clan, there's a great deal of flexibility as to what will provide the moisture. For onions and the green (tougher) parts of leeks, parboil for a minute until the vegetables have softened, then finely chop.

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For green onions and the white (tender) parts of leeks, add them raw and finely chopped. A proper balance of meat-to-fat-to-vegetables will ensure a juicy filling that bursts from the skin. While dumplings are a labor-intensive venture, the filling may be made in large batches and frozen for a rainy day. The dumplings themselves can also be frozen, to be cooked straight from the freezer on a lonely weeknight for some instant made-with-love goodness.

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Lamb Dumplings with Cumin and Garam Masala

- makes enough for 2 or more batches of Dumpling Dough (see below) -

Adapted from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen.

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