A Dumpling Club Party for the Chinese New Year Spring Festival!

By Charleen - February 03, 2020

Wrapping and then eating dumplings 餃子 (jiǎo zi) together is a Chinese family tradition designed to bring happiness and prosperity into the New Year. Two years ago, I started a local dumpling club to share this tradition with friends, and stimulate the exploration and enjoyment of multi-cultural versions of dumplings. Homemade Chinese wrappers made with just water and flour, or using gluten-free starches, are remarkably versatile and easy to use. Plus, savory or sweet fillings wrapped in dough are so much fun to eat, and everybody loves these delicious packets of love.


This year, the Spring Festival extends from Chinese New Year Day on January 25 to February 4. Dumpling wrapping, having fish (有魚 yǒu yú), and the red packet of money 紅包 (hóng bāo) are some of our Chinese New Year family traditions. Eating dumplings together symbolize a wish for prosperity and wealth, as the traditional crescent shape of the Northern Chinese dumpling resembles ancient ingots of silver and gold. Whereas round or spherical dumplings celebrate peace, prosperity and family completeness. Round treats are eaten at the first full moon of the year in the form of glutinous rice balls 湯圓 tāng yuán for the Lantern Festival, or moon cakes 月餅 (yuè bǐng) for the mid-Autumn festival 中秋節 (Zhōng Qiū Jié), which celebrates the fullest moon of the year .

My mom spent a good part of her childhood in Northern China as her father fought in the war against Japanese aggression. As such her dumpling wrappers, consisting of only two ingredients -- flour and water -- are stretchy and chewy in the Northern style where wheat is a major crop. And we find that a simple dip of vinegar tinged with fresh ginger slices brings out the best flavors of the dumpling. 

Later on, I would discover that there are major differences in texture between wheat flour dough made with cold water, as we had always made them, and hot water dough in which boiling water is added to the flour. While cold water dough dumplings are resilient enough for cooking as boiled dumplings or 水餃 shu jiǎo, hot water doughs are best steamed or pan-fried. Cold water dough is stretchy because of gluten networks, whereas the hot water disrupts these networks allowing the dough to be rolled out thinner without bouncing back.

Left, Cold water dough with pork-cabbage filling cooked three ways: boiled, steamed and pan-fried potstickers. Top right, hot water dough with fish-scallion filling. Middle right, Shrimp dumplings with sweet potato starch-tapioca blend. Lower right, translucent shrimp dumplings made according to a recipe from the Spring Moon restaurant in Hong Kong. The pink shrimp peeks through the translucent wheat starch-tapioca dough, which can also be made using chives water as detailed in The Breath of a Wok.  
Because of this, hot water dough is frequently used to make scallion pancakes, a type of filled doughy treat with sesame oil and scallions encased in flaky layers. By necessity, gluten-free dumpling wrappers are also made using hot water methods. These include the translucent wheat starch and tapioca starch wrappers for shrimp dumplings or har gow in Cantonese, or the black sesame paste filled glutinous rice balls 湯圓 (which evolved into mochi after it spread to Japan) mentioned above. 

Overall, cold water dough is more versatile. If you accidentally put too much filling, you can often simply stretch it to cover. In contrast, you have to be much more careful not to overfill hot water doughs. We often use leftover cold-water dough to make scallion pancakes. You simply have to let the gluten relax by resting the dough if it seems to bounce back too much. Cold water dough dumplings are also wonderful cooked pot-sticker style, a combination of steaming in a tiny bit of water to cook the insides, while pan-frying the bottoms to a golden crisp.
The idea to start a dumpling club arose from a pot-luck dumpling party that we hosted for my husband's work group 5-6 years ago. His colleagues brought Indian spinach triangles that looked just like Greek spanakopitas, samosas, and apple dumplings, while we prepped the ingredients for pork-cabbage Northern dumplings and pot-stickers 鍋貼 guō tiē. We also tried a rather nondescript, fully forgettable vegetarian egg-based filling from a recipe I found on-line.


Two years ago, for the Year of the Chow Chow, I finally kicked off the dumpling club with a series of parties extending from Christmas to Chinese New Year, developing a tasty and colorful vegan filling that fully met my standards of flavor.
As members of the club stepped up to host these fun gatherings, we have enjoyed making for the first time our own Shanghai-style 小籠包 xiǎo lóng bāo soup dumplings, Finnish karjalan piirakkaas (little boat-shaped pies containing a risotto-like milk filling with egg butter), compared two dough recipes for baked char siu bao (Chinese bbq pork buns), and learned how to make spinach-cheese ravioli using equipment passed down from a member's grandmother. Despite this, we have yet to make even the slightest dent in the list of dim sum style snacks, empanadas, pierogies, samosas, handpies, spring rolls, dolmades, ravioli, tortellini, tamales, 粽子 zòng ziand other sweet or savory fillings wrapped in flour, corn, rice, starches or leaves (grape, bamboo, corn husk, avocado, lilypads). Here's to many more years of exploring the world of dumplings!

新年快樂  Happy Chinese New Year 2020!   

Hsin Nien K'uai Le (Xīnnián kuàilè) in Mandarin.

Menu for 12

For group wrapping
Cold water wheat dough, Chinese pork-cabbage and Indian-spiced potato fillings, boiled and steamed
Hot water dough using sweet potato/wheat/tapioca starches, shrimp-bamboo filling, steamed

Appetizers & Drinks
Fresh, NatureSweet mixed variety cherry tomatoes
Hapi chili-garlic coated Sriracha peas
Mixed drinks and white wine
Topo Chico mineral water

Side dishes
Steamed eggplant in sizzling garlic sauce
Turnip cake
Szechuan style green beans

Desserts
Pecan Pie Bars
Gluten-free chocolate mint cookies
New York style cheesecake

Note: I will be posting recipes for many of these dishes when I get a chance. So check back and/or leave me a comment if there is a particular recipe that you would like to try.

Boiled Chinese Dumplings 

The filling for a double recipe (two pounds of pork total) was prepared in advance and chilled. Two batches of dough (5.5 cups each) was prepared at least 40 min before wrapping.
Chopped Chinese yellow chives, scallions, garlic and ginger
The head of cabbage from the Chinese store was somewhat flat and elongated
The cabbage leaves were thin and delicate, and less tightly packed. It was easy to remove the stalk and there were no thick, hard pieces to punch through the dough if not picked out.

The pork filling was doubled, and the split into two bowls to support two wrapping stations
Two batches of dough were made separately, to support wrapping stations on either end of the dining table

We divided the guests into groups of 3-4, and set two groups to work wrapping the pork-cabbage and vegetarian spicy potato fillings. While there were several wrapping styles tried, including use of a press, we decided to leave the occasional potato filling as a surprise!  In total, we made 144 wheat flour dumplings.
In addition to the meat filling, our guests brought a mildly spicy Indian potato filling


Steamed gluten-free Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow)

The third group worked on the gluten-free dumplings, using the har gow recipe in Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok. This makes 20 lovely dumplings with pink shrimp peeking through the translucent dough. As I was not completely sure if the wheat starch was completely depleted of the protein that forms gluten, I cut it with half sweet potato starch.  Twelve ounces of shrimp paired perfectly with 1.5x the dough to make 30 shrimp dumplings without any filling or dough leftover.


Silky, cool steamed eggplant in sizzling garlic sauce

Traditionally steamed eggplant, chilled and then finished by pouring over hot oil to sizzle the aromatics.
For this party, I used the instant pot to cut the steaming time down to 5 min at pressure. This retained the wonderful silky softness of the eggplant. Although the color was not quite as good, this dish disappeared as the evening progressed.

Turnip Cake (Low Bak Go)

For this dish, I used the recipe from The Woks of Life, except that I substituted a bit of minced ginger for the mushrooms given the allergies of one of my guests. I also had only a small daikon radish, so I cut the dish in half. It fit perfectly in one layer of the double layer steamer pot that I had purchased for a 3 qt Instant Pot. After the turnip cake was cooked, it was refrigerated and pan-fried just before serving with some oyster sauce for dipping.

Szechuan style green beans

With my shortcut method, these delicious green beans no longer require babysitting small batches of beans at the stove until they are wrinkled and begin to brown. Once you find two special Chinese ingredients (sumiyacai pickled mustard green stems and Chinkiang black vinegar), this dish is easy to make and sure to impress. For our recent party, one of my guests scaled up my recipe to make a large batch to share. The wrinkled beans plump back out as they absorb the sweet broth, and the dish is improved after the flavors are allowed to meld a bit at room temperature, making this an excellent potluck choice!

Scallion Pancakes

Extra dough can be used for scallion pancakes. If the dough springs back too much to roll the pancakes out thin, simply let the dough rest at room temperature for 15-20 minutes to allow the gluten to relax. Extra filling can be cooked as little meatballs, or simply stir-fried to eat with rice. This year, I invented a new snack using the extra filling, just in time for the Super Bowl:  Scallion-pork-cabbage pancakes!

Scallion pancakes are made with a hot water dough, mixing one part boiling water into two parts flour. Although I usually use a food processor to quickly mix 1 cup of boiling water with two cups of flour until it clumps up, this time I was only making half that amount for two people. So, I made a well in the flour on a wooden cutting board, and used a pastry scraper and chop sticks to mix in the boiling water until it was cool enough to knead by hand. 

Fish Dumplings 魚餃 (yú jiǎo)

Click here to read about the best restaurant versions of fish dumplings and xiao long bao, and our own adventurees making the delicious Fish & Chinese Chive (or Scallion) hot water dough dumplings from Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings cookbook. 
Steamed Fish & Scallion Dumplings with Scallion pancakes in the background


Tips: 
🐾 Set expectations. Let your guests know that dumpling fests are informal and they can expect to get their hands messy. Generally everyone pitches in to wrap a ton of dumplings. They cook in batches and people should be prepared to descend on each plate as they come out, eating a few at a time so everyone can get some while they are hot.

🐾 Provide the filling and dough for the main event, some appetizers and drinks for nibbling when guests take a break from wrapping, and perhaps a few other dishes that serve well at room temperature. If you have a large group, ask your guests to bring a side dish, dessert or drinks.

🐾 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. If the cold-water doughs bounce back too much, just set aside and let the dough relax for 15-20 min.

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


HAVE YOU TRIED SIMILAR DUMPLINGS? ANY FAVORITE DUMPLING RECIPES?

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