"The Chinese name is '100 Kinds of Dumpling Garden,' but that's too long for English, so I decided to call the restaurant Dumpling Galaxy."
"Like the Samsung phone," she explains. "Everyone has them these days."
I'm having tea with Helen You in her palatial new restaurant, where we're about to cook my favorite dumplings in the world. There may be other kitchens on earth making fat boiled dumplings stuffed with lamb and summer squash, but not in New York. Now, cheap, tasty dumplings are not hard to find here. But if you want something that's more sophisticated, trading in flavor and technique instead of fat and salt, you need to dig deeper. And You's "lamb and green squash" dumplings, with their ever-so-slightly chewy skins that barely contain their brothy payload, are utterly unique.
Some of her fillings are straightforward—there's nothing new about the pork, shrimp, and chive filling except how clean, light, and homemade it tastes. But You also does combinations you won't find anywhere else in New York: that unbeatable lamb, for one, not to mention octopus, wood ear mushroom, and even a take on chicken and broccoli.
A short walk down Main Street in Flushing, Queens is You's first store: a tiny stall named Tianjin Dumpling House jammed in the middle of the Golden Shopping Mall. In that food court you'll encounter the city's most diverse assortment of regional Chinese cuisine—Fujian wontons, Sichuan beef tendon and, You's northern-style boiled dumplings.
Over the past eight years, You's expanded her menu at Tianjin to answer customer requests. "People tell me the kind of dumplings they want, and I make a list. When enough people ask for something, I make a recipe and put it on the menu." Today the shoebox business churns out 10,000 dumplings a day in more than a dozen varieties, but it still struggles to keep up with growing demand. So like her neighbor, Xi'an Famous Foods, You is seizing her chance to expand with a new restaurant inside a brand new mall up the street. "I always wanted to offer more dumplings and seating, but I didn't have the space."
She's gone all out with Dumpling Galaxy, where there really are 100 varieties of dumpling on the menu—fillings like pitch-perfect Japanese beef curry, tofu with crab roe, and duck with mushrooms are just a few newcomers—and where you can sit down at a clean table with a pot of tea. Flip over the Homeric dumpling menu and you'll find an equally long full-service menu with dishes like scrambled eggs with green chili, twice-cooked pork, and whole fish.
"More people are coming from Manhattan to eat these dumplings, and I wanted a space that was nicer, with more private tables." Dumpling Galaxy is You's flagship, a more comfortable stage from which to spread the dumpling gospel. And she's not done. "I still want to add more dumplings. And I want to have an international dumpling festival. I'm learning how to make samosas and spaetzle."
Table service and a proper dining room mean You's lamb dumplings cost more here—$7.96 for six—but they're as unique and delicious as always (most of the other dumplings are cheaper). What makes them so special? She let me into her new kitchen to find out.
Step 1: Mix the Dough
"It takes three to six months for a new cook to learn how to make the dough," You tells me. "It should be smooth and shiny, not too tight or sticky." The recipe's pretty basic: all-purpose flour, cold water, and salt, sorta measured out with quart containers but mostly done by feel. A massive mixer kneads a full batch of dough—enough for 700 dumplings—but for our small batch, You's dough-maker is doing it by hand.
The dough looks pretty shaggy at first, but shapes up as more water joins the bowl.
After some initial kneading, the dough is covered and left to rest for about half an hour—a critical step to fully hydrate the flour and relax the gluten in the dough.
Step 2: Make the Filling
While the dough rests, the cook moves onto the filling. You's lamb filling is made with a blend of leg and breast meat for an 80/20 meat-fat ratio. It's sliced thin, then minced with giant cleavers, which keeps the fat from running while adding some texture to the meat. Onions, scallions, and garlic get minced up as well.
"Green squash" refers to a zucchini-like summer squash that's simply grated and added to the filling. "Don't add salt to it before. Salt draws out the moisture, and you need that moisture for the dumpling." By New York dumpling standards, You's fillings are light on fat. So she relies on a higher water content to make the mix as juicy and rich as the best soup dumpling.
Once the meat and vegetables are mixed together, the cook adds salt, pepper, soy, hoisin, and oyster sauces, and then a secret weapon.
Chinese cooks tend to tame lamb's gamey flavor with bold ingredients like cumin. You prefers Sichuan peppercorns, but adding them straight to the filling would be too much. So she soaks them in water for a bit, strains out the peppercorns, and adds some water to the filling.
The filling then rests for 30 minutes so its flavors can meld.
Step 3: Roll and Stuff the Skins
Once the dough's rested, it's satin-smooth and pillowy. The cook gives it another quick kneading.
Then she lops off chunks with a cleaver, rolls them into a log, and chops off little nubs. A dusting of flour on the table keeps the dough from sticking.
Each skin is rolled with a small wooden dowel, first into a pudgy circle, then a thin disk. To save time, You's cooks layer a few skins on top of each other and roll them all at once.
Here's a short video of how they do it:
"It's important to roll the skins from the outside to the center," You insists. "The center is the base, so it should be a little thick. But the edges need to be thin." Remember, they'll be twice as thick once folded over and sealed.
A dab of filling is unceremoniously plopped in a freshly rolled skin, which is then cupped in two hands and sealed in what You describes as a "classic northern shape."
Most of Dumpling Galaxy's dumplings are boiled, not fried, and these fat, round pouches, called shui jiao, are designed to keep their shape in the pot.
Step 4: Cook 'Em
Each main ingredient—beef, lamb, poultry, pork, seafood, and vegetable—gets its own boiling pot. The dumplings are lowered in not-furiously-boiling water and left to cook for about five minutes. After that, the clock is ticking. "The dumplings change so fast. After 20 seconds they lose their shape!" So don't waste time and eat them while they're at their sweet, juicy best, though it's a good idea to lean over the plate. These are spurters.
When she opened Dumpling Galaxy, You decided to offer some pan-fried dumplings, called guo tie. The best part of fried dumplings is the crust, which is why in some forms of guo tie, you get a whole plate's worth.
It starts with a hot pan and some oil. In go the dumplings with their thicker bases on the bottom. Then comes a thin slurry of water and cornstarch, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. The liquid comes to a boil almost immediately, at which point the lid goes on.
The idea is to let the dumplings fry on the bottom and steam on the top. As the water in the slurry evaporates, the cornstarch and excess flour in the dumpling dough will form a paper-thin layer of starch across the pan. Once the dumplings are fully steamed, the lid comes off, the liquid reduces, and the entire bottom of the pan fries into one big pancake.
Some careful spatula work loosens the pancake, which is then inverted onto a plate.
Yup, it's all crust.
And the dumplings underneath are just as spurty, so dig in fast. Then place an order for more.
Oh, and if you want more dumplings? Our buddy Chris Crowley has a guide to 33 others on the menu. But I wouldn't blame you for ordering a second helping of these.