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Dumplings for dinner

Sunday, April 09, 2000

By Kathryn Matthews

My husband, Christopher, is a WASP from Tennessee, my brother-in-law, Jeff, is an Irish-Polish Catholic from Philadelphia, and David, my youngest sister's husband, is a native of Hubei, China. What brings us all racing to the kitchen table faster than you can snap your fingers?

  Taking the first steps -- creating the dough and stuffing -- is Wen Fu Kuo of the Sesame Inn, Mt. Lebanon. He uses a 3/4-inch wooden dowel to roll out the dough for Chinese dumplings. In the foreground is the ground pork for the stuffing. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

My father's Chinese dumplings.

Born and raised in Sichuan, a province known for its spicy cuisine, my father, Thomas Kuo, left China in 1949 as a university student during a period of intense political turmoil, initially escaping to Taiwan before heading to New York City in 1954.

He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1961 and pursued his third master's degree and a Ph.D. in European history at the University of Pittsburgh, eventually placing his imprimatur there both as a professor and as the director of the East Asian library. He is now retired, but throughout a prolific academic career, my father has always made time to indulge in one of his greatest passions: cooking.

His inspired culinary repertoire includes the best dumplings I have ever had (even if I'm slightly biased!).

Dough the right thing

Most cultures have their own version of savory, center-filled dough pockets: Italian raviolis, Polish pierogis, Argentine empanadas and Indian samosas, among others.

Dumplings are to northern China what a good clam chowder is to New England -- cold weather comfort food. In the north, where wheat is the predominant starch, noodles and dumplings prevail.

According to Eileen Yin Fei Lo, author of "The Chinese Kitchen" (William Morrow, 1999), the Chinese distinguish between two types of meat-filled dumplings: jiao zi (boiled dumplings), which are associated with Beijing, and guo tie (pan-fried dumplings, also known as "potstickers"), which supposedly originated in Shanghai.

Dumpling fillings reflect regional tastes and preferences. Thick-skinned dumplings -- filled with ground meat (lamb or pork), Chinese chives and cabbage -- are a gastronomic antidote for northern China's chilly climes and constitute a one-course meal. Rice and seafood are staples in the southern and eastern parts of China.

There a delicate taste and texture characterize southern-style dumplings: rice-noodle skins are stuffed with shrimp, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and black mushrooms and are usually steamed. In this region, dumplings are regarded as a "snack" or appetizer and typically served at dim sum (a Cantonese custom of eating bite-sized foods and pastries with tea) as part of a multicourse meal.

  George Lee of the Sesame Inn in Mt. Lebanon places the dumplings on a leaf of cabbage inside a steamer for 15 to 20 minutes. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Good as gold

Traditionally, dumplings have been "special occasion" foods, reserved for festivals and holidays. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), dumplings became a traditional dish for the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 19, marking the beginning of the new agricultural year.

Because dumplings are shaped like Chinese coins (yuan boa), they came to symbolize wealth: Families would eat them to achieve prosperity in the new year.

Today, dumplings are ubiquitous appetizer items that appear on virtually every Chinese restaurant menu throughout the United States. Pierogis might still be considered Pittsburgh's official "dumpling of choice," but jiao zi is gaining ground.

George Lee, owner of the Sesame Inn in Mt. Lebanon, reports that while jiao zi rates second to the egg roll as the most frequently ordered appetizer, "dumplings are getting more popular."

At the North Hills' Sesame Inn in Ross, manager Ken Cheng estimates that about 65 percent of his customers order jiao zi as appetizers. "We do make them here at the restaurant, about 1,000 pieces each week," he says, "and customers really like the boiled vegetarian dumplings, too."

When Grace Zhou of Mt. Lebanon moved from Hong Kong to Pittsburgh in 1991, she opened the China Inn restaurant in Oakland (she sold it in 1998). Zhou, too, offered jiao zi -- homemade on the restaurant premises -- and found them a hit with her customers, although she noted that "Americans preferred pan-fried dumplings, while the Chinese generally liked boiled ones."

All in the family

But for many Chinese families, dining on these nutritious self-contained morsels is not a restaurant experience: making and eating dumplings is a family activity, one with its own rhythm and rituals.

And, like Italians who firmly believe that their mother's pasta sauce is inherently superior to all, Chinese families who make their own dumplings believe their version to be "the best."

However, this isn't a one-man (or woman) affair. It's a real hands-on family project that is neither gender- nor age-exclusive. In our household, my father reigns as dumpling chef and commander-in-chief in the kitchen, while the rest of us assume our designated helpmate roles.

The men squeeze out water from cooked Napa cabbage for the filling and prep the dough for dumpling skins; the women fold and pleat. We chatter as we work.

Recalling her childhood in Shanghai, Zhou vividly remembers making dumplings as a social event that included the extended family. "There might be 10 of us, including my grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles. Even though I was a child, I always helped my grandmother make the dough. Someone would make the filling, and we'd all help wrap."

And jiao zi sufficed as a complete dinner -- no accompanying side dishes or dessert required. "Americans tend to think of dumplings as 'appetizers,' " says Zhou, "but we'd make about 200 to 300 dumplings for one meal. Each person would eat about 20 or 30."

When Zhou was 7, her family moved to Hong Kong, and she immediately noticed that the dumplings were different. "Hong Kong is an island surrounded by water, and the Cantonese Chinese eat a lot of seafood. The type of jiao zi I ate as a child was not popular there."

Although a Taiwanese native, George Lee's family hails from Canton province, located in the southern part of China. "When I was growing up, we did not make dumplings at home," he says, "because jiao zi was regarded as a 'northern [Chinese] food.' But now, my wife will make jiao zi for me and our daughter occasionally. Or, if we're having a big dinner party where there might be some northern Chinese guests, we'll make it."

And does Lee actually get his hands dirty (or doughy, in this case)? "Well, they do give me the sauce to make," he admits sheepishly.

While Ken Cheng was born and raised in Vietnam, his family is also originally from Canton. "If your family -- like mine -- is from the south, you won't have a tradition of making jiao zi at home. But my wife is from Taiwan, and she makes it for me and the kids. Jiao zi can be made in advance and frozen -- then, you have an easy, healthy meal, ready to go. In China, jiao zi is more of a festival food, but since it suits our busy lifestyle, we make it about once a month."

Is it a family affair in the Cheng home? Most definitely.

Cheng and his wife make the filling -- typically, a mixture of pork and Chinese mushrooms with a good measure of Chinese chives and cilantro. "And, we get the kids involved," Cheng says. "They're 5 and 7 years old, and they just love to get their hands on the dough! It's something we enjoy making together."

Of course, as we all know, a burger doesn't taste quite the same without the fixings -- ketchup, mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes or onions. And so, jiao zi comes with its own medley of attendant dipping sauces, as uniquely diverse as dumpling fillings.

In my parents' household, the condiments are basic: soy sauce, distilled white vinegar and my father's homemade Sichuan hot sauce (yow!). Each person blends these ingredients in a bowl, according to taste.

The Lees combine soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine, ginger, scallions, white pepper and sesame oil for their dipping sauce. The Chengs use the same ingredients, but add a pinch of sugar.

The Zhous dip their dumplings into a "Shanghai- style" dipping sauce, simply consisting of a Chinese brown vinegar, a dash of soy sauce and finely minced garlic.

Yes, dumplings and sauces may vary. But in every Chinese household, the dumpling ritual concludes similarly: steaming hot dumplings arrive at the table, chopsticks click in anticipation, conversation ends ... and the eating begins.

Kathryn Matthews, formerly of Ross, is now a New York City-based free-lance food writer.

Related Recipes:

Meat Dumplings (Jiao Zi)
Dumpling Skins (Jiao Zi Pi)
Pork and Shrimp Dumplings

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