Dumpling Hero

Produced for the LATimes/February 2008

Not so long ago I went to the best party in years: The guests brought wine or beer. The hosts provided the makings for Chinese dumplings. And everyone did the work assembling them. I walked into a kitchen full of mostly strangers and left having enjoyed a good conversation with nearly all of them.

Clearly, there are icebreakers, and then there are dumplings.

Trying to stuff three different fillings into two types of dough and get the skins pleated just right made everyone bond big time. The hostess, whose skills are genetic, taught the first arrivals how much pork or vegetables or shrimp to mound into each wrapper, and how to seal it, and the lesson was passed along as other guests turned up, bottle in hand. Over the course of the afternoon we filled nearly 300 dumplings.

And then we got to eat.

Some of these sensational dumplings were fried but more were boiled; both types were dunked in a well-spiced dipping sauce and slurped up as we stood around and kept talking. Nothing more was really needed for refreshments, but the hosts had bought scallion pancakes from a Chinese grocery to nibble while we wrapped, and they handed out penis candies as sweets to finish. They even provided doggie bags.

Now I’m convinced dumplings are one of those productions — like tamales — that are most fun to tackle in a group, with many hands making tedious tasks go faster. You could assemble them all in advance all by yourself, but as I learned, division of labor is not only stigma-free but can actually ramp up the festivities. Luckily, dumplings are so forgiving that even those made by the klutziest guest will cook up fine and taste great.

Our hosts, Pam and Chad, had started their Saturday grocery shopping in Chinese shops to collect many packages of dumpling skins, pork ground just right (not too fine, not too lean) and other necessities including shrimp, Chinese chives, tofu and Napa cabbage. Before anyone arrived they did the heavy lifting of prepping raw vegetables and dried mushrooms, chopping shrimp and cabbage and mixing everything together in different bowls. Muscle, they reported later, was the essential ingredient.

By the time I got to the festivities one table had been set up for rolling out homemade dough and a second, larger one was tightly surrounded by men and a few women filling dumplings, sealing them closed and pleating the tops into half-moon shapes. One guest was in charge of providing baking sheets to contain the finished dumplings; all of us were deputized to be sure the dog on premises could not get into the unheated bedroom where they were held before cooking.

Pam had mixed up a very silky dough that would make extraordinarily light dumplings, but rolling it out and cutting it into circles took several guests some time, only to have other guests complain that it was too delicate and harder to handle than the commercial kind. Message: There’s also no stigma to storebought. And I suspect dumpling skins are like tortillas: Best left to the professionals.

When I asked Pam later how she actually did everything, she handed over a master plan for the entire party, all written (mostly in English but intermittently in Chinese) on a single sheet of paper. It had a shopping list, including directions for the butcher who would be grinding the “slightly fatty” pork. It had a list of utensils for other guests to provide (cutting board, colander, big pot). It had the list of staples (foil, sesame oil, chili sauce, cooking wine, Ziploc bags for take-home leftovers). It had chores marked to be assigned (muscling the cabbage into the pork; finely chopping, salting and softening the Napa cabbage).

And it had recipes, after a fashion. For the dough, three rice bowls of flour were to be mixed with one or one and a half rice bowls of water. The sauce comprised soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chile sacue.

What I absorbed from Pam’s other “recipes” is that dumplings can be filled with a rather free hand, as long as the stuffing clings together through the cooking. She used pork with Napa cabbage and mushrooms, seasoned with salt, sugar, sesame oil and soy sauce. Mixing it took energy and stamina to get all the ingredients evenly incorporated.

Part of that meat mixture was scooped into a second bowl to be mixed with chopped popcorn shrimp and a little wine for a second filling. And the third filling, to satiate any vegetarians, included Chinese chives, dried vermicelli, thin omelets cut into thin strips and black dried mushrooms that had been reconstituted and chopped. She also added tofu cut into a very fine dice for chunkiness.

But the filling can be built around spinach as well; the vermicelli can be omitted, too. And for guests who do not eat meat but indulge in seafood, a third batch of dumplings can be made with equal parts shrimp, crab and scallops, seasoned with ginger and garlic and bound with a little egg white.

Pam also had her own way of cooking all the dumplings. The boiled ones were actually boiled three times: After the big pot of salted water came to a boil, a batch was added; when the water boiled again, a cup of cold water was dumped in and the pot was allowed to boil again, and then a second bowl of water was added and the pot allowed to boil again. As she explained, this makes the dumplings (particularly pork dumplings) cook completely and evenly.

For the fried dumplings, she deviated from the usual cookbook instructions to work over high heat in a work. She kept the heat lower and fried them longer in a covered skillet, again for even and thorough cooking.

Pam figured about 15 dumplings a person, but we didn’t eat nearly that many. Some of us saved room for what she promised was the best part of the whole enterprise: the rich, hearty and spicy broth created in the boiling of the dumplings.

Lacking her skills, I would use only commercial dumpling skins. I would offer snickerdoodles flavored with five-spice powder for a whimsical dessert. And I would take heart in her having bought the scallion pancakes rather than making them from scratch. If she can cheat, so can I. And there’s no better way to do that than to borrow from “Tom Douglas’ Seattle Cuisine” and its formula for the ideal cheater’s pancake, made from flour tortillas filled with chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds, coated with egg and fried to order.

It could not be easier to make. Or to eat while shaping dumplings among strangers as they become friends, friends as they become collaborators.

[Even the most rudimentary Chinese cookbook has standard recipes for dumpling fillings; I started with hostess notes and cobbled mine together from a combination of Florence Lin, Barbara Tropp, Kenneth Lo and the funky little Chiu Chow cookbook I bought in Hong Kong right before the handover. Pam’s mom tactfully refrained from critiquing. . . .]