Making Fish Dumplings for a Pre-Chinese New Year Send-off

By Charleen - January 25, 2020

While many people know about the fabulous Shanghai-style soup dumplings 小籠包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) at the worldwide Taipei chain Din Tai Fung, their fish dumplings 魚餃 (yú jiǎo) stand out even more from the crowd. Craving these, I turned to Andrea Nguyen's recipe for Fish & Chives Dumplings just before my daughter returned to college, so she could get in both her New Year's fish and a dumpling wrapping session to usher in the Year of the Rat!

Steamed Fish & Scallion Dumplings with Scallion pancakes in the background

Dumpling wrapping as a family, eating fish, and the red packet of money 紅包 (hóng bāo) are the Chinese New Year traditions that I have tried to impart to my children. The first two stemmed from my childhood, whereas my husband and I added the red packet when our children were small. 

My parents grew up in a war-torn China, fleeing their homes, country and hemisphere in search of stability, liberty and democracy. As one of the only Chinese families in a neighborhood dominated by Mexican-American and Filipino families, we did not grow up with a deep sense of tradition for celebrating either Chinese or American holidays. Thanksgiving became our favorite holiday, celebrated initially with roasted duck, and then at the kids' request, turkey roasted with the same Chinese seasoningsEver so often, we would go watch the colorful lion and dragon dances in the Los Angeles Chinatown. And my mom always served whole fish sometime during the New Year season. The Chinese phrase for "having fish" 有魚 -- yǒu yú -- sounds the same as the words for "having surplus" 有余, signifying prosperity, abundance and the ability to share with others.

When relatives came to visit, the grown ups would sit around wrapping Chinese pork dumplings. While we liked eating them, we kids gave one or two desultory tries at wrapping leaky, deformed (criticizable) dumplings before running off to play. It was not until I got to college that I made my first dumplings at a huge New Year's event. Other Chinese-American students assumed I knew how to do it, and asked me to teach non-Asian participants. I was able to surreptitiously watch the guy next to me, and picked it up quickly enough to fake my way through the lesson. See one, do one, teach one...

That summer, I came home and asked my mom to show me how to make dumplings from scratch. She makes a pretty stiff dough, as she enjoys the toothy springiness of Northern style boiled dumplings, as opposed to the thin, unsubstantial gyoza-style wrapper that fades from the senses after conveying what are essentially meatballs to the mouth. To my surprise, it was a lot easier and less messy to wrap dumplings using the freshly made two-ingredient (flour, cold water) dough than using store bought circles that required dipping an increasingly messy, starchy finger into cups of water. And the dumplings made with fresh dough stay sealed easily throughout the boiling, pan-frying or vinegar-dipping process to deliver all the tasty juices into the mouth.

Fish Dumplings 魚餃 (yú jiǎo)

The first time I had fish dumplings was at the Din Tai Fung restaurant in Arcadia, CA, which we had visited for their Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings, so named because each dumpling contains a bit of delicious, steaming soup. I still think they have the best soup dumplings I have ever tried. The skins are always thin, translucent and bulging with rich, savory broth. But, comparably tasty (if more expensive) soup dumplings can be had in many cities around the US, in a smaller city like Pittsburgh. The best soup dumplings in Pittsburgh are served at a Taiwanese bistro, Cafe 33
Juicy Pork Soup Dumplings or Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

While the soup dumplings are delicious, the Din Tai Fung fish dumplings were really special. Elegant, elongated dumplings zipped closed with an abundance of fine pleats, they were filled with tender, white flaky fish with a delicate, yet distinct, savory richness. What they lacked in color, they more than made up for in pleasurable flavors and texture.
Din Tai Fung Fish Dumplings with side of Seaweed & Beancurd in a Vinegar Dressing

Although I have had fish dumplings elsewhere, they typically disappointed by tasting bland or just salty. I even tried my hand at making a fish dumpling recipe in Florence Lin's Complete Book of Chinese Noodles and Breads. While this book has some truly delicious recipes for dipping sauces and a fantastic sesame seed pocket bread with pork and cabbage filling (Rou Mo Shao Bing), the fish dumplings lacked the flavor I was seeking.

In addition to the Pork Xiao Long Bao, Din Tai Fung also has a series of other, perhaps more unique dishes that are excellent. The restaurant specializes in Huaiyang cuisine from Jiangsu province, one of the four major styles of Chinese cooking along with Cantonese, Shandong and Szechuan cuisines.

Be sure to try their stir-fried Shanghai Rice Cakes 炒年糕 (Chǎo Nián Gāo) with any topping, although we most frequently order it with pork. The sauce used in these savory rice cakes is amazing, and the slightly sticky, chewy texture of the rice cake and the green vegetables combine for perfect mouthfuls that engage all the senses. Eating Nian Gao is associated with good luck in the New Year, as the Chinese phrase for "sticky cake"  sounds the same as "year"  and "tall/high" . So eating sticky rice cakes is symbolic for the desire to raise oneself higher in the coming year. When seasonally available, the stir-fried Chinese water spinach 空心菜 (kōng xīn cài) is also very good.

Vegetable & Pork wontons in Spicy Sauce, Shanghai Rice Cakes with pork, Vegetarian Shanghai Rice Cakes
Among our favorite Din Tai Fung dumplings are the Pork Xiao Long Bao, and of course the Fish (Steamed Cod) Dumplings. The Vegetable & Mushroom Dumplings and Vegetable & Pork Wontons in Spicy Sauce are also excellent. Everything is so tasty all you need for dipping is a saucer of vinegar and maybe some ginger shreds. Soy sauce is too salty and would simply serve to mask the concerto of flavors.

Finally, the dessert to get is the Red Bean Rice Cake.  Don't let its deceptively simple appearance fool you. The soft red bean paste and intact red beans combine to lend a subtle sweetness to a delicately textured, leavened rice cake (completely unlike the dense texture of the stir-fried rice cakes). We often order a whole cake of 8 wedges to go (saves money over the individual servings), attractively topped by Christmas-colored sugar flecks. This is truly a unique dessert that we have not seen in other restaurants.
Red Bean Rice Cakes make for a light and unique dessert
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in California, Washington state or Tigard, Oregon, or in Taiwan, and certain cities in Asia, Australia, the UK or the UAE, be sure to track down a branch of Din Tai Fung!!

Fish & Chinese Chive (or Scallion) Dumplings

Although I typically make my family's pork and cabbage dumplings, I had been wanting to try a recipe from Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings cookbook. So I picked up some frozen tilapia fillets and came home early with my husband on the day before my daughter's flight -- he to make a hot batch of brown butter bourbon spice cookies for her to take back to college, and me to prep the filling and dough for the fish dumplings. The recipe is also available online.
Simple ingredients for Fish & Scallion dumplings: Fish, scallions, ginger and a sauce/marinade with flavors commonly in Chinese steamed fish.
This recipe called for a hot water dough, in which boiling water is mixed into all-purpose flour. While my daughter has gotten really good at making this dough for scallion pancakes, her method is a bit too hot for my fingertips. I find it easier to combine the hot water with the flour in a food processor. I decided to use 1.5 times the dough recipe (3 cups of flour) to make sure we did not run out of dough. After a few quick kneads to avoid overworking the dough, I placed the entire ball into a reusable quart size silicon zip-lock bag.
After gently kneading the dough, it was allowed to rest (and steam) in a reusable zip-lock bag. Meanwhile, the sauce was processed into the fish before mixing in the scallions and ginger.
After washing out the food processor, I was ready to make the filling. There are surprisingly few ingredients in this recipe, and most are staples in my cupboard: salt, ground white pepper, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wing, vegetable oil, sesame oil, ginger. So all I needed was some frozen tilapia fillets and a fresh bundle of Chinese chives or scallions. Unfortunately, my Chinese chives, which are supposed to grow like weeds, are not thriving in the sandy soil of my ginger/tumeric planters. (I must be the only person who can't grow Chinese chives or mint!) So scallions it was.

I had high hopes for this recipe, as instead of simply marinading the fish in these classic seasonings frequently used in steaming whole fish, the flavorings and oils are emulsified into a ground fish paste -- kind of like a fleshy pesto. It was easy to make and easy to handle, as the filling adhered to itself neatly, but kind of hard to clean the food processor. The entire concoction smelled divine!

Both my husband and daughter prefer rolling out the dough, so it was up to me to wrap the dumplings. Check this video for several ways to wrap dumplings. We most frequently make the two-direction crescent moon style dumplings, and occasionally what they call the sun-shaped twisty rope for pot-stickers. Just for fun, I tried a few other shapes...
Several dumpling shapes ranging from classic crescent moon to tricorn, ruffled and bud-shaped
In contrast to the elastic softness of our typical cold water dough, the partially steamed hot water dough rolled out flat and heavy. My dough handlers found that it did not really need much, if any, extra flour to prevent it from sticking to the cutting board. Given its lack of elasticity, however, I was having a hard time pulling the filling around the first spoonful of filling. So I asked them to roll everything out thinner -- resulting in somewhat larger and fewer dumplings. We only got 28 out of the recipe, instead of 32 (48 if you considered that I used 1.5x the dough recipe). With the extra dough, my daughter made a scallion pancake, which I cooked (a bit too long), in the wok.
The wok is not ideal for larger pancakes, due to the concentration of heat in the middle, but it was convenient.
We opted to steam the fish dumplings for 8-10 minutes given their size. The dumplings were delicious, particularly when paired with some rice wine vinegar containing a few drops of sesame oil!
Delicious steamed fish dumplings

While the texture of the fish was not as delicate as the Din Tai Fung version, I was quite happy with the aroma and flavors. Next time, I might try reserving half of the fish to stir into the fish paste for a flakier texture,. This recipe is definitely a keeper to add to our dumpling repertoire!

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!   新年快樂
Hsin Nien K'uai Le (Xīnnián kuàilè) in Mandarin.


🐾 Using hot-water dough, there is little elasticity to pull the dough shut over the filling. So you have to roll out the circles a bit flatter and bigger to fit the filling.

🍃 Instead of single-use disposable zip-lock bags, consider investing in a set of reusable silicon zip-lock bags. I have been very happy with the Homelux Theory brand of reusable silicone food storage bags. They are waterproof, easy to fill (they stand up), open and shut. They are also easy to clean, drying quickly as they are rigid enough to stay open inside-out. Furthermore, it is unclear what temperatures are safe before plastic residues start to leach into your food from the single use plastics. In contrast, silicone is food safe from -76°F to 428°F.

🐾 Use extra dough to make scallion pancakes. The hot water dumpling dough is essentially the same as the dough for scallion (and Mandarin) pancakes and can be used as is. If you have extra cold water dough, you may find that the pancake is springing back too much to roll out. If that happens, let the dough relax at room temperature for 15-20 minutes before rolling it out.

🐾 Leftover dumplings store well in the refrigerator, and reheat easily in the microwave.


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