A savory start to the Chinese New Year
Fried, steamed, meat or vegetarian, dumplings are a warming - and traditional - midnight snack
Next Sunday night and Monday, as Chinese the world over gather to celebrate the Year of the Ox, firecrackers will scare away evil spirits, bright red banners hung on doorways will convey good wishes for the months ahead, and pan-fried and steamed dumplings stuffed with juicy meat and vegetable fillings will be devoured by the thousands.
Although there are many Chinese New Year delicacies, dumplings have become the food most closely associated with this grand festival. Many families serve dumplings for the midnight snack, a meal on Sunday night that welcomes in the New Year. Chinese who abstain from eating meat stuff savory pastries with ornate vegetarian fillings. Of all the numerous varieties of dumplings, xiaolongbao, also known as Shanghai soupy buns, have become the most desirable - perhaps because of the delicious spurt of hot juices that fill your mouth at first bite (watch your shirt fronts and ties!) or the dipping sauce of mellow black vinegar with delicate fresh ginger slivers. In most regions, the dumplings are considered a type of "dian xin" (dim sum), or snack, but they can also become the main course when served in quantities with a side vegetable or soup.
In China, dumplings vary from region to region. In the north, they are often rough, doughy crescents stuffed with lamb or pork, garlic chives, and chopped cabbage. In the west, they may be more delicately shaped, doused at the table with hot chili oil or a spicy, toasted sesame dressing. In the east and south, dumplings are almost an art form, with myriad meat and seafood fillings, both savory and sweet. The skins may be transparent or opaque and they're steamed, boiled, baked, pan-fried, or deep-fried.
Shanghai soupy buns, from Eastern China, are traditionally served in bamboo steamers, hence their Chinese name, which translates from the Mandarin as "buns in a bamboo steamer." It is said they were first created more than 100 years ago at a small dumpling stand in Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai.
Although most other Chinese "bao" have a puffy, bread-like skin, xiaolongbao are clothed in thin, translucent skins made from a wheat flour and yeast dough. The preparation is somewhat elaborate. In the classic recipe, a rich pork and chicken broth seasoned with soy sauce, scallions, and ginger is cooked for hours, strained, and chilled to form an aspic. When the dumplings are filled, a portion of the ground pork filling is set atop a square of the firm aspic, then enrobed in a wrapper. They're shaped by pleating the tops all the way around, then pinching and twisting the edges into a topknot. The shaping takes practice. In China, you see women working at incredible speed. To create the burst of juice when you serve them, the dumplings are steamed, which melts the aspic inside the buns.
The buns are difficult to make at home, but I've streamlined the recipe to reduce the cooking time of the broth and the amount of filling ingredients. I've also added unflavored gelatin to turn the broth into aspic. To simplify the wrapping procedure, I mix the ground meat and aspic together, then chill the mixture until firm.
Everyone who eats them becomes a fan of soupy dumplings. My first taste was in Taiwan when I was a young student. A friend tipped me off about her favorite dumpling stall. She had guarded the name like a state secret, but when she was about to return to the United States, she organized a farewell lunch at Din Tai Fung, the place she liked.
I was enthralled by the broad selection of dumplings, including the house specialty: soupy buns studded with crab roe. When the dumplings were served, I picked one up and bit into it. The luscious broth spilled all over my shirt. I was hooked at first spurt.
Today, Din Tai Fung is a huge franchise with shops in Taiwan and numerous branches in China. Whenever I go to China, I schedule at least one or two visits. There are dumplings places closer to home (see below) if you're not up to making them.
For the ultimate experience, however, mix the dough, assemble all the ingredients, and invite your friends for a dumpling party. But this is serious business. The Chinese believe that the dumplings hold the key to your luck in the coming year. When you're shaping them, don't gossip. Think of good things: prosperity and happiness.
They may come your way even without perfect pleats.
Nina Simonds is the author of many books, including "Moonbeams, Dumplings, & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities, & Recipes," written with Leslie Swartz and the Children's Museum of Boston. Her videos can be seen at www.spicesoflife.com.