Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wrapping Up a Tasty Dish

Yesterday I enlisted a Beijing friend of mine to teach me and a friend how to make jiaozi, or dumplings. It's a typical northern Chinese food that is usually made at home. Some families do this once a week, but particularly during Chinese New Year or Chun Jie, where eating dumplings when the clock strikes midnight on Chinese New Year is considered good luck.

I like eating jiaozi at our company canteen, where they dish them out by the vat every few minutes. Everyone it seems, wants to eat it and if you don't get there early enough, they're all gone.

I quickly gained a new appreciation for jiaozi after making them.

First the skin: In a big bowl with flour, we added a pinch of salt and and egg white. Then we added a bit of water, mixing it slowly and then adding more water until it wasn't too wet, but relatively easy to knead. We kneaded it for a few minutes and then put it in a bowl and covered it with cloth or plastic.

Next the filling: We bought 1kg of ground pork that had a bit of fat in it. We didn't use a blender to make it smooth, but instead put the meat on a chopping board and using a big cleaver, chopped down the meat even further. It required a lot of wrist action otherwise your arm got tired.

Then we defosted some shelled prawns, deveined them and added a bit of salt and some Chinese cooking wine to them.

After, we made scrambled eggs using six eggs, on low heat, constantly breaking it up as we only wanted small pieces.

We let that cool while we chopped lots of chives into small pieces. We also used a few inches of the white part of the leek and sliced them thinly lengthwise and then chopped them up again into small pieces.

Everything except the prawns were mixed together, along with a pinch of white pepper, salt, chicken essence, some sesame oil, olive oil, and Chinese cooking wine. They had to be mixed in one direction... we were not given the explanation why.

My friend then checked our concoctions by first smelling them, and then even dipped her finger into the raw mixture and putting it in her mouth! My other friend and I shrieked with horror. "I knew you would react like that," she said with a laugh. We were not amused.

Preparing the skin: Now the dough was ready. It was kneaded a few times again before cutting it in half, and then half again, using one-quarter to work with first.

The dough was hand rolled into a long snake about two inches thick and then cut into 1.5 inch pieces. These were then hand flattened and lightly covered in flour.

Then using a small rolling pin, each slice was rolled once on the edge, and then shifted around to roll the next part and repeated, so that the middle is slightly thicker than the edge.

Finally the wrapping: Taking a piece of shrimp and laying it in the middle of the skin, we then spooned a bit of the meat mixture on top and tried to lay it flat. Then we took the two opposite ends together and sealed them, which formed a fat triangle. Then the bottom end was sealed and then pressed a few more times before it was done. My Beijing friend joked that we would find out whose dumplings would explode if they weren't sealed properly so I pressed on mine a few extra times just to make sure.

We were starving by the time we finished the first batch.

Cooking the jiaozi: In a big pot of boiling water with a bit of salt, put the dumplings in, sliding them in along the edge of the pot to avoid getting a back splash. Then using the back of the spoon we stirred it a few times, waiting for it to boil again. Then when it was bubbling fiercely again we added a small bowl of cold water and waited for it to boil again before adding more cold water. We added water twice because our skins were a bit thicker than say store-bought pre-made jiaozi.

After letting it boil for a minute or two longer they were scooped up and ready to be eaten!

And after spending five hours from buying ingredients to making them, every bite was delicious, dipped in vinegar and a bit of soy sauce. A few of the dumplings we made looked a bit sketchy according to our Beijing friend, who suggested another way of cooking them.

In a flat pan with a bit of oil, the jiaozi were placed upright and left sitting there on low heat. After a few minutes she added a small bowl of flour mixed with water. Then putting the cover on, she said we would let it cook until all the liquid had evaporated, which took about 10 minutes.

The end result were jiaozi that were fried on the bottom, but steamed on top, complete with a thin fried layer around the pan that was crispy.

We made one more batch of dough to use up the rest of the meat mixture, which yielded about 40 jiaozi, so in total we made about 80 of them. I took the remaining ones home, froze them on trays before putting them in a bag so they wouldn't stick together.

For first timers we weren't quite efficient, but towards the end we got better and more confident in wrapping the jiaozi.

However, it makes you wonder why restaurants price dishes of jiaozi so cheap? My Beijing friend says it's because they have machines that make the dough, but still, wrapping them is a labour-intensive process.

We will probably make them again, and it was a nice way to pass the afternoon practicing our Mandarin and learning how northerners make one of their favourite dishes. But we were completely wiped out by the evening, having worked so hard for our food!

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