Last Friday was Chinese New Year, but I celebrated it on Saturday since I had an essay due on Friday night. I don’t really know how lunar calendars work, but the real meaning behind Chinese New Year isn’t about the moon or even about getting together with family and friends.
Chinese New Year is all about the food.
Because I am but a mere mortal, I was unable to produce a proper feast of 20 dishes of things like steamed fish, stir-fried rice cakes or soy-sauce braised pork. Instead, the plan was just to make a bunch of dumplings. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to do just that.
1. Go to Po Tung Grocery store: This Chinese grocery store on the corner of Park Avenue and W. Mulberry Street is one of the last remnants of Baltimore’s Chinatown, and this little shop is extraordinarily well stocked. You can get there either by taking the JHMI or the Circulator to the Peabody stop and walking for 10 minutes west. Just get vegetables, meat, Asian seasoning liquids and dumpling wrappers (if you don’t know how to make them yourself).
2. Chop everything to bits: I used a Chinese kitchen cleaver, and it’s the only knife you’ll ever need.
3. Prepare your fillings: For meat dumplings, I used ground pork, Chinese cabbage, onions, garlic, ginger and eggs. For vegetarian dumplings, I used mushroom, carrot, cabbage, onions, garlic, ginger, chopped rice noodles and eggs.
You can honestly put in whatever types of vegetable or meat that you like, as long as they are minced finely. Make sure everything is mixed well and then season both fillings with salt, white pepper powder (black pepper should suffice), soy sauce, Shaoxing cooking wine and sesame oil.
You may be wondering, what kind of recipe doesn’t include measurements? Well, out of both arrogance and laziness, I don’t have any measurements. Cooking is a performance art (watch the movie Ratatouille), so just do whatever you think looks cool.
If things smell good, you’re on the right track. If it looks like you’ve put in too much mushroom, add more of everything else. If only a drop of sesame oil came out of your bottle, hit it to make more come out.
4. The wrappers: If you bought pre-made dumpling wrappers, skip this step. If not: I’m sorry, but you’ve got to make them yourself.
Pour four cups of flour into a big bowl and gradually mix in warm water until a dough forms. The dough should be smooth and slightly moist to the touch — just knead in more flour and water until you get to that point. Then let it rest somewhere warm for about 20 minutes.
Next, tear off a good chunk of it and form a ropish cylinder with a radius of about a centimeter and half. Use your Chinese cleaver to cut the rope and form clumps that are about the size of small golf balls. Take your hand and smack all of them against a floured table to flatten them.
The following step is too hard to describe with words, so just look it up on Youtube. Essentially you use a rolling pin to make dough circles that are big enough to cover the top of a mug.
You will fail a lot — so don’t do this if you are emotionally distraught at the time.
5. Construction: Call up some friends and promise them dumplings. When they show up, tell them they have to make the dumplings themselves. After they are done complaining, teach them how to fold dumplings.
There are a couple of different ways to make them, but basically the filling needs to be sealed inside the dough. If the dough is too dry, dab your finger in water and wet the dough to make it easier to fold together.
Be sure to threaten your friends by telling them that if they don’t fold the dumplings properly, they will all disintegrate when boiled and lead to a disgusting porridge of dough and meat/vegetable bits.
This is an exaggeration, but you just spent five hours chopping everything, so the dumplings better be damn good.
After the first couple are folded, boil them in water for about 10 minutes and then taste them to make sure they aren’t atrocious.
If they are, fix your fillings (watch Ratatouille again for inspiration).
6. Cooking (finally): Put all the folded dumplings on lightly floured trays, and prepare two pots of boiling water (one for the veggie dumplings, one for the meat ones). Boil them in batches to avoid crowding the pots. Meat dumplings take a bit over 10 minutes, and veggie dumplings take a bit less. If the pots are boiling over too much, pour water in them.
Scoop out the dumplings and eat with your friends. You can dip them in soy sauce, vinegar and/or chili oil.
At the end of Saturday night, we had around 200 dumplings for eight people, and they seemed pretty content.
So yes, Chinese New Year is (mostly) about the food, but maybe it’s also about being with friends.