I’m a sucker for food-themed movies and TV shows (shocker of the year, I know). I couldn’t wait to watch Pixar’s Bao short film, and considered even going to the movies to be able to catch it before it showed up on YouTube. For some reason, even though I have eaten my fair share of Japanese gyoza in the last couple of years, soup dumplings only entered my lexicon within the last year or two (and it’s never leaving – ever).
Growing up, in the rare instances we would order Chinese food, dumplings were never a part of the order. I don’t know why – we would eat other pocket-based foods (such as pierogies, raviolis, or other similar stuffed pastas). When Jeff and I first tried Bing Bing Dim Sum and I saw the soup dumplings on the menu, I knew it would be a game changer.
Dumplings hold a particularly significant place around Chinese New Year. At times used as currency, they were also considered to bring good fortune to anyone who consumed them.
On our last day in China, we were given the opportunity to make our own dumplings. I love trying food but am always tickled when I learn how to actually make it. While the saying may go – if you a teach a man to fish, he can feed himself (yet in reality, even if I’ve been taught, given the choice I’m still going to order from the pros).
To start, our group is given three stuffing options – pork with rice and cabbage, chicken with rice and cabbage, or a vegetarian version with eggs and cabbage. We’re each given a piece of dough that was already made by the chefs in the kitchen. After rolling the dough into a long , thin cylinder, we cut the cylinder into tiny squares. Pressing down on each square, we create small mini circles using our fingers. Next, we’re given a rolling pin to flatten the circles, making sure to leave a small amount of dough in the center. The excess dough in the center is meant to cradle the stuffing (or the baby, as they call it in Crazy Rich Asians).
The challenge with lessons like these is my competitiveness/perfectionist/massive OCD comes out. While it might not be evident to others, I can feel it starting internally when the chef praises my ability to flatten the cylinders using the rolling pin. And that’s where it goes downhill.
Call it overstuffing (or an overinflated sense of ego), I could not for the life of me fold the dumplings. Unlike making pasta or other dumplings – where you use egg whites to seal the dough together – the chef perfectly needs the dough together at the seams using only her fingers. She starts with the half-moon folding, and then gets craftier – making a few look like leaves with a braid down the middle or the intricate triangular dumpling. And quick – I’m impressed with the speed in which these gorgeous creations are made.
It takes me what feels like way too long to even seal one. Maybe my finger nails weren’t the right length – or maybe I just don’t have the patience for it (which is something that our Chinese calligraphy teacher called me out on) – but I get to the point of just twisting the dough at the seams so that they don’t explode in the water. It’s definitely not pretty but it’s functional.
Once we’re done sealing the dumplings, they are dropped in large pots of boiling water. The first batch comes out quick – a little under ten minutes. We get to choose what we want to dip then in – soy sauce with some vinegar, maybe add a drop or two of hot sauce, some scallions, etc.
Like any food preparation process, this one was intricate and time intensive – and we were given like a cheat sheet version with several items made in advance of our arrival. The seaming of dumplings could have taken at least an hour for maximal practice time.
The practice has made me infinitely more curious as to how soup dumplings – such as those I inhale at Dim Dim Bing Sum – are made. How do you cradle the soup in such a thin dough, folding the top without burning the tips of your fingers? If you check out my crab soup dumpling from Shanghai, the dough is see-through – which means that it has to require such a finely honed technique in order to pull it off (or magic. I’m pretty convinced that it’s just magic).