If pizza didn’t exist, dumplings would be my favorite food. Dumplings are a perfect food for you to share with your children, your friends, and your other loved ones. The best thing about them is that the sharing doesn’t have to start at the dinner table—a dumpling-stuffing party is a great way to get everyone involved in the kitchen.
Several times a year when I was growing up, my mother would park me and my sisters at the low table in our living room, set a stack of store-bought dumpling wrappers, a bowl of filling, and a few small bowls of water in the center, then put us to work stuffing and folding dumplings, which she would then space out on a tray and freeze. We happily did the work, knowing that we’d be enjoying them once a week or so for the next few months.
Besides, it was fun. As any parent knows, it’s inherently enjoyable for kids to stuff things into other things—especially squishy things that can get a little messy. There’s also a satisfying learning curve with dumplings, and, thankfully, even a misshapen or overstuffed dumpling is still going to taste delicious once it’s done cooking.
There are also plenty of learning opportunities involved—one of the joys of getting your toddler to love food and cooking.
Salting cabbage, letting it rest, then squeezing out the moisture through a kitchen towel is an early lesson in the concept of osmosis, and one that even a toddler can grasp when it’s illustrated so vividly. Salt on the outside of vegetable cells draws water out of those cells, which in turn causes the structure of the cabbage to collapse. (I’d start by showing them the minced cabbage, then asking them how much water they think is inside. They will be shocked by how much water the salt draws out!)
Folding dumplings is great for fine motor skills and learning patience and practice. Start them off* with simple half-moons, showing them how to squish excess air out of the dumpling as they fold, and as they get the hang of it, you can start adding pleats and attempting the classic purse shape. (See our Japanese gyoza post for a more detailed look at various folding techniques).
*And yourself, if you’ve never folded dumplings before!
There’s also a wealth of opportunities to explore flavor and aroma. The basic recipe will taste just fine on its own, but adding optional aromatics like garlic, ginger, scallions, herbs, sesame oil, or soy sauce lets you customize the mix. Arrange whatever aromatics you choose into small bowls, then let the kids smell and taste them before deciding whether to add it to the mixture, and how much to use. Similarly, mixing up the easy dipping sauce can be a lesson in basic flavors, such as sweet sugar, salty and umami soy sauce, and sour vinegar.
My daughter, Alicia, has had her own small marble mortar and pestle that she's used since before her second birthday to smash garlic and ginger with a pinch of kosher salt when we need some minced for a recipe. Anything in the one-and-a-half-cup capacity range is good for little hands, and you’ll be surprised by how much a toddler can actually help out when armed with one! Check out our guide to kids' cooking tools we love for more ways to get young kids set up in the kitchen.
Dumpling-making with kids is inherently messy, and some ingredients like soy sauce and dark vinegars can stain, so plan on a good clean-up session after you’re done (and don’t work over a carpet or your fancy table linens). Treating it like an art project by placing newspaper under your plates and cutting boards isn't a bad idea. Make sure your kids wash their hands well and teach them about properly handling raw meat and seafood.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series that will guide thoughtful, interactive cooking experiences with young children. The recipe comes from the pages of Kenji’s children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night, illustrated by his friend and collaborator Gianna Ruggiero. It’s a book about a young girl named Pipo who learns about open-mindedness, multiculturalism, community, and family, as she embarks on a quest to prove that pizza is the best food in the world. These are the dumplings her friends Ronnie and Donnie share with the neighborhood from their dumpling truck.
- For the Pork and Shrimp Dumpling Filling:
- 1/2 pound (225g) finely minced Napa or green cabbage (about 1/2 a small head)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, divided (for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight)
- 1/2 pound (225g) ground pork
- 4 ounces (113g) peeled frozen shrimp, thawed and roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons (8g) sugar
- Up to 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic from about 3 medium cloves (optional)
- Up to 1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger (optional)
- Up to 1/4 cup minced scallions (optional)
- Up to 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as cilantro, basil, mint, or dill (optional)
- Up to 1 teaspoon (5ml) toasted sesame oil (optional)
- Up to 1 teaspoon (5ml) soy sauce (optional)
- Up to 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder (optional)
- For the Dumplings:
- 1 package dumpling wrappers (40 to 50 wrappers)
- Vegetable or canola oil, for cooking
- For the Dumpling Sauce:
- 2 teaspoons (8g) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) hot water
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) Chinkiang, rice, or balsamic vinegar
- Aromatics such as garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and minced scallions, as desired
For the Dumpling Filling: Line a fine mesh strainer with a clean dish towel. In a large mixing bowl, combine cabbage and 1 teaspoon salt and toss to combine. Transfer cabbage to the towel-lined strainer, set it over the bowl, and let stand at room temperature until the cabbage has started giving up its moisture and is wilting, about 15 minutes. Let kids massage the cabbage if they’d like (it’ll help speed the process along). Now is also a good time to start picking which aromatics you’ll want to use in the meat mixture, and to chop up the garlic, ginger, scallions, and herbs (if using). My daughter, Alicia, likes to peel ginger using the edge of a teaspoon, and smashing garlic and ginger in a mortar and pestle is a very kid-friendly task.
Gather up the edges of the dish towel and twist them to squeeze the cabbage. Kids can help wring out as much excess moisture as possible. I like to measure how much liquid came out to show Alicia how much water is inside a cabbage. Discard the liquid, then return the cabbage to the bowl.
Add the pork, shrimp, sugar, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and any aromatics you choose to the bowl and, using clean hands, knead and mix until the filling is homogenous and starting to feel tacky/sticky. Transfer a teaspoon-sized amount to a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power until cooked through, about 10 seconds. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. This is a good time to let kids taste the mixture and offer input. ("Do you think this needs more salt? Maybe more ginger?," etc.) Make sure kids wash their hands after handling the raw pork and shrimp mixture and before eating.
Set up a work station with a small bowl of water, a clean dish towel for wiping fingers, a bowl with the dumpling filling, a couple spoons for putting the filling into wrappers, a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet for the finished dumplings, and a stack of dumpling wrappers covered in plastic wrap.
For the Dumplings: To form dumplings, hold one wrapper on top of a flat hand, or lay it flat on a cutting board (make sure the remaining stack of wrappers stays under plastic—they dry out quickly). Using a spoon, smear a 2 teaspoon- to 1 tablespoon-sized amount of filling in the center of the wrapper. Use the tip of a finger to very gently moisten the edge of the wrapper with water (try not to use too much water, though with toddlers it’s almost inevitable—if the work surface is visibly wet, transfer the wrapper you’re working on to a separate small board or plate to finish, then have a sponge handy to dry off the main board before starting on the next). Wipe your fingertips dry on a kitchen towel.
Working from one side, carefully seal the filling inside the wrapper by folding it into a crescent shape while pushing out as much air as possible. As you get better, you can start to add pleats to the shape to form small purses (see here for detailed folding illustrations). Transfer finished dumplings to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Your kids’ dumplings (or yours) may end up misshapen, or the filling might be squeezing out one end, or there may be a hole in the wrapper. This is all okay; I promise they will still taste great.
At this point the dumplings may be frozen by placing the baking sheet in the freezer. Freeze dumplings for at least 30 minutes then transfer to a zipper-lock freezer bag for long-term storage. Dumplings can be frozen for up to 2 months and cooked directly from the freezer.
To cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add dumplings, and boil until they are cooked through, about 2 minutes if fresh and 3 minutes if frozen. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon or metal spider. Alternatively, dumplings can be steamed in a bamboo steamer lined with cabbage leaves or parchment, set on top of a wok with an inch of simmering water. Steam for 4 minutes if fresh and 6 minutes is frozen. If you like your dumplings crispy, transfer them to a non-stick skillet preheated with a little vegetable oil over medium heat, spread them into a single layer, and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisp. Serve the dumplings with dipping sauce.
For the Dipping Sauce: Combine sugar, hot water, soy sauce, vinegar, and any aromatics. Stir well to combine.
The dumpling filling is very versatile and easily adaptable to suit your own taste. For instance, you can omit the shrimp, or replace the pork with beef, or use spinach instead of cabbage. As long as your vegetables are salted and squeezed (a fun task for any kid!), you have enough ground meat to bind everything together, the dumplings will work.