February 8 marks the beginning of the New Year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Each year corresponds with an animal of the Chinese zodiac — we’re beginning the Year of the Fire Monkey, which I’m particularly looking forward to because I was born in a Monkey year, myself. In China the New Year or Spring Festival is, of course, a huge holiday — one to which I’ve paid more attention since I’ve been studying Chinese medicine. I realize the idea of spring may seem very far away, depending on where you live. But in Chinese medical thinking, each season actually contains the seeds of the one that follows. Now is when the spring energy — or wood energy — is rising. Even if you can’t see it yet, the awakening is beginning, and our bodies feel it too. We are linked to the earth even if we’re surrounded by pavement and high rises. The days are getting a bit longer, the light is subtly changing; maybe even in the city, you can catch just a hint of a different smell in the air … yes, there’s a light at the end of winter’s tunnel.
So let’s celebrate! There are many different regional New Years traditions all over China, but what they all share is a focus on family and food. This year I turned to my classmates, Wencong and Jie, who both grew up in China but in an interesting turn, are studying Chinese medicine here in the US. I asked them about their favorite food for the New Year, and they invited me over to make these amazing dumplings.
Wencong described how for the days leading up to the start of the New Year (celebrations last from two weeks to an entire month) everyone cooks and cooks … and cooks some more! The idea is to have enough food prepared for an entire week to symbolize abundance for the coming year. Wencong explained that fish is traditionally eaten on the eve of the New Year because the word for fish has the same pronunciation as the word for abundance.
Truth be told, I’ve always been just a tad intimidated by dumplings. I think of them as a lot of work — but honestly, these aren’t! And you can skip the dough-making step entirely if you want by buying egg roll or wonton wrappers at the supermarket. Then these are truly a snap to make.
But if you have the time and willing hands, try making everything from scratch. Dumplings are exactly the kind of holiday food that’s perfect for getting everyone together in the kitchen, talking, laughing, and having a great old time. We need more holidays to celebrate hope and renewal! Humans are social creatures — we’re hard wired for this kind of interaction to stay happy and healthy. If you have kids, round them up, turn off the iPads, and get them involved. Invite friends over … whatever it takes. Unlike fried dumplings, which make a big mess if they pop open and the filling comes out, steamed dumplings are completely forgiving. They can have holes — it doesn’t matter — they’ll still taste fabulous! So these are particularly good for even young children to help with. This kind of activity is great for building fine motor skills and confidence. And kids who cook become adventurous eaters.
These dumplings are very mild in flavor and require only two ingredients in the filling — zucchini and eggs. They’re flavored with a spice that’s new to me in cooking, although I had already learned about it in herbs class at school. It is one of many Chinese herbs that function both as a food and as medicine. It’s called Sichuan Pepper or Hua Jiao, but the surprise is that it’s not hot at all. It’s actually not even really a pepper — it reminds me more of coriander both in appearance and taste. But I can honestly say I’ve never tasted anything else quite like it. I’m definitely adding it to my spice cabinet. The whole seed husks, which can be added to soups and stews, have a mildly lemony aroma before cooking, which changes a bit during the cooking process.
We added a ground powder to the dumpling filling, which I was surprised to find lent them a very vague taste of the sea. Or that’s what I tasted, anyway. It was magical. These dumplings have a very spring-like taste — fresh and light, and green. Wencong and Jie have Sichuan Pepper in a whole bunch of different forms in their pantry. I’m going to look for some of the powder (used in this recipe) to have on hand as a start to experimenting with this wonderful herb in the kitchen.
Don’t be afraid to make these dumplings if Sichuan Pepper is nowhere to be found near you or the thought of even trying to look for it is too daunting. I’ve listed a few things you can use instead below. They will still taste great! Just have fun making dumplings!
- 2 pounds zucchini
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper powder (or black pepper to taste) You could also mince some fresh cilantro or garlic if you want a bit more of a kick. Or to best approximate the Sichuan pepper flavor if you can’t get it, add about a teaspoon of dulse (seaweed) flakes, available in health food stores.
- Salt to taste
- a few tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 cups all-purpose flour — OR — 1 package egg roll or wonton wrappers
- Soy sauce and rice vinegar for dipping
If you are going to make dough from scratch, start it first. Bring 1 1/4 cups just to a boil, and remove from heat. Pour one cup of hot water over the flour, and mix with an electric mixer for several minutes. If a smooth dough is not formed, add more water a tablespoon at a time, beating in between until you get a dough that holds together and is not sticky. You can also do this with a wooden spoon if you’re feeling energetic. Once the dough is smooth and elastic, just gather it into a ball and leave in a bowl, covered for a half an hour. This “awakens” the dough as Jie says.
While the dough is waking up, make your filling. Cut the ends off the zucchini, and grate them either by hand or with the coarse grating attachment of a food processor. Do not just throw them into a food processor without the grating attachment or they will come out as mush. No good. Stir two teaspoons of salt into the grated zucchini and let it sit for five minutes. (This helps get the moisture out.) Then pick up handfuls of the zucchini and squeeze the moisture out. Most of the salt comes out with the liquid. Reminder from the Doc: Don’t forget to wash your hands! This is a great step for kids to do. Now crack your eggs into a small bowl and whisk them gently. Put a splash of vegetable oil into a wok or large frying pan, and scramble the eggs. Add the zucchini and whatever flavoring you’re using, and stir fry on medium heat for just a few minutes until everything is warmed through. Taste for salt and spice, and adjust as needed.
Now, to make the wrappers. Jie knocked out dozens of perfect rounds of dough lickety-split, but she’s been doing this for a long time. If you can get a few people in on the rolling part, it will be a lot more fun — and you can cheer each other on! I was informed that making good dumpling dough is one of the things that every Chinese woman needs to be able to do. There is a saying that hands, dough, and work surface should all be shiny — meaning that the dough is smooth and easy to work with, not sticky. I’m no expert on dumpling dough, but having worked with lots of other kinds of dough, my advice is to forgive yourself plenty if your first time isn’t perfect. Playing with flour and water is an age-old art. If it’s a little dry — add more water … slowly. If it’s a little wet — add a sprinkle of flour.
Here are the steps:
- Knead the ball of “awakened” dough for a few minutes in the mixing bowl. It should be smooth and elastic.
- Divide the dough into thirds. Keep what you’re not working with covered in the bowl so it doesn’t dry out.
- Using your hands, roll each third into a log roughly a foot long.
- Cut the log into about 10-12 pieces
- Using a rolling pin, roll each piece into a circle on a surface very lightly dusted with flour. The dough should be thin — roughly the thickness of a pie crust or a cooked lasagna noodle. If it’s too thick, the dumplings will be doughy; too thin, they’ll fall apart. (Jie’s rounds were approximately 2.5 inches in diameter. You could get a little bigger, but smaller would be hard to fill.)
- Place a round in the palm of your hand, and add a small scoop of filling. Depending on the size of your rounds, this could be anywhere from a heaping teaspoon to a tablespoon. Don’t overfill or it will be really hard to get them closed.
- Put a little oil in a dish, and dip the bottom of each dumpling lightly into the oil before placing in the steamer — so the bottoms don’t stick.
*NOTE — If you are using egg roll wrappers, you will either have to cut them in half to make smaller dumplings or just make bigger dumplings. They will also be a different shape because you won’t be using rounds. You will also have to moisten your fingertips to seal up the wrappers — something you do not have to do with homemade dough.
Don’t worry if your dumplings look like misshapen lumps. According to Wencong and Jie, there are endless styles of dumplings all over China. Yours are bound to look like one of them. Wencong’s dumpling pleating style comes from her mother’s side of the family. When she visits her paternal grandfather, he teases that she doesn’t know how to make dumplings!
Okay, now for the steaming part. This may require some creativity. Wencong and Jie have a steamer from China that I started drooling over as soon as I saw it. It’s huge. And apparently, it is only the medium size. I found a variety of steamers on Amazon from about $20 for the bamboo variety that you put in a pan of water to about $80 for a fancy stainless steel one that will last a lifetime — with plenty of choices in between. I’m going to explore some of the Asian markets here over the weekend — if you have one near you, that’s a good bet to locate a steamer. I also see smaller ones that fit in regular sized pots at thrift stores all the time. It’s that thing with holes in it in Grandma’s highest kitchen cabinet that never got used. Anyway … use what you can find. You may have to do a lot of batches! Squeeze the dumplings in, but make sure they’re not touching or they will stick together.
Since they don’t contain meat, these dumplings only require eight minutes of steaming. (If you end up with big dumplings, steam for a minute or two longer to heat the filling all the way through.) Everyone can dig in around the pot together as we did — it’s fun! Serve with a little soy sauce and rice vinegar to dip them in. Or try a spicy chili paste like the one Wencong persuaded me to try. The dumplings are so delicate and mild that a little spice is a nice touch.
This recipe made 70 dumplings. And I am amazed to report that the three of us ate them ALL. I would like to think that I had a few less than Wencong and Jie because I am far less adept with chopsticks, but I’m not sure that is, in fact, true. I ate a lot of dumplings.
They are filling but light. Kids will adore them. When I make these at home, I will throw some broccoli and baby carrots in the steamer as well to round out the meal. If you don’t eat them all in one sitting, these are terrific to pack up for lunch. In fact, I’m going to make another batch just for that purpose … yay for dumplings!