When I visited China earlier this year, dumplings were everywhere and the fillings varied widely. A lot of the food we ate there simply tasted better than the American imports I’ve found since we returned. So I was excited to attend a dumpling-making class earlier this week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sponsored by its Confucius Institute. The institute is a nonprofit institution that promotes and teaches Chinese culture in Nebraska. This was its first cooking class, though it has another planned for this fall.
Staff members from the institute taught the class, and Associate Director Rachel Zeng led us into the world of dumpling making. She and a helper mixed the fillings, which included pork and cabbage and beef and celery, for the dumplings. Both varieties included the traditional Chinese five spice blend, which usually includes equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. If you like ginger, you can add that, too. She also added a fair amount of salt and soy sauce, though be careful on the salt — its easy to overdo it.
Zeng said you have to make sure the dumpling filling is a good mixture of meat to vegetables. There are endless ways to fill the dumplings, and Zeng had some suggestions: shrimp or tofu instead of meat, carrots instead of cabbage, cooking wine or vinegar mixed with soy sauce, fresh spices like chopped cilantro along with the five spice blend. Basically, make the filling suited to whatever flavors you like best.
Next we learned how to hand-roll the wrappers for dumplings. These small, almost transparent round wrappers are widely available frozen in Asian markets, but it was fun to see how they’re made traditionally from scratch.
First the cook cut the dough, made from a simple recipe that used flour, water and salt, and kneaded it lightly. Then she formed it into the shape of a huge doughnut, cut it and rolled it into a thin stick which she chopped into coin-sized pieces of dough. This all happened very fast.
She passed the coins to her assistant, who first pressed them flat with the heel of her palm, then quickly rolled them out using a tiny rolling pin, turning and rolling around the edges of the dough. Then she tossed the wrappers to the group, who clumsily learned how to turn them into dumplings.
The wrapping is trickier than it looks. The scoop of filling has to be small, but not too small. The edges have to be sealed tightly, dough to dough, or else they’ll fall apart when they’re cooked.
If you’re using store bought wrappers, they’re dry and you should wet the edges with a bit of water to make sure they stay shut.
Because time was limited in the class, we learned to fry and steam dumplings using some store bought examples. Zeng told the class that most Americans prefer fried dumplings. But the steamed and boiled dumplings were closer to what I ate in China, save for some fried dumplings filled with a much soupier meat mixture in Shanghai. (Man, those were delicious.)
The finished boiled dumplings were fantastic. Soft on the outside with a burst of flavor inside. We mixed our own sauces using soy sauce, Chinese vinegar, chili oil, sriracha and ginger, among other ingredients.
Using the handout we got in the class, I came up with a version of how you can make Chinese dumplings at home. Of course, all the fillings are variable. You can find the recipe and instructions at omahavore.omaha.com. The recipe is long, but doing this from scratch is so much better.