Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Huawen Dumpling Party

The second activity held by Huawen that I attended was a dumpling party. I love dumplings as you’re probably aware by now. Like the tea party, Stephanie had invited a friend of hers who was meant to be an expert of sorts. Li Zhenjuan was from is the town of Linyi in Linshu County, Shandong Province. Shandong is in the north of China. According to Stefanie, “most of the provinces in northern China are home to dumplings. Almost every household is good at making dumplings, which is their main food, especially for the spring festival.” Li Zhenjuan grew up making dumplings and she showed us how her family makes them.

The party was a bit awkward at first. Whenever you first walk into a situation with Chinese people you don’t know there is sometimes an expectation in them that you don’t know anything. When someone points to a plate of dumplings and says; “these are called jiaozi,” it is difficult for me not to respond sarcastically. It helps to try to remember that they are only trying to be polite and helpful. It helps even more though to realize that any sarcastic remark would be wasted because most people usually won’t understand it and there wouldn't be any satisfaction from having said it. Knowing this I managed to hold my tongue when in the first few moments of having arrived it was explained to me what jiaozi were, what chopsticks were and myriad other things that I was already aware of.

Eventually things became more interesting. We watched Li Zhenjuan make dough. Then using a small rolling pin she showed us roll a piece of it out into a dumpling wrap. The rolling pins are very small. They are about ten inches long, maybe shorter, and a little less than the diameter of a quarter. The trick is to control the rolling pin with one hand while turning the dough with thumb and forefinger of the other hand and to do this very quickly. Do this correctly and you end up with a flat almost perfectly round shape about three inches wide.

It takes several tries to get this down. The first few times everyone ends up with strangely stretched shapes that aren't good for anything. Several people gave up on this. A few didn't even try. I and a young man named Evan were the first to more or less get the hang of it. Evan is from Portugal and is the first foreigner I've met who lives here working as a translator. Portugal is China’s second largest market behind the US. Evan works for manufacturing companies. His job is to take documents, like user manuals that have been written for English speaking consumers and translate them into Portuguese.

Neither mine nor Evan’s wraps were near the quality of Li Zhenjuan’s but we didn't expect them to be. Evan’s actually were slightly better than mine. Though we both got good at making them we both agree that we wouldn't want to do this regularly. After thirty to forty minutes of rolling out these wraps my hand was starting to hurt and I didn't want any more of it.

We had three different kinds of fillings. One of them was 白菜肉 (bai cai rou) pork mixed with Chinese cabbage. The second was a mixture of some green vegetables. I didn't recognize what they were. The third was another meat filling with bits of corn and other vegetables.

To make a dumpling you first wet the edges of the wrap. The side you wet will be the inside once you've pressed it together. Then you put a small scoop of filling into it and then fold the edges between your thumbs and the sides of your palms pinching them shut. You have to be careful not to over stuff them. You also have to make sure that they are completely closed and that all of the stuffing is in the middle. None of the stuffing can reach the edge of the dumpling nor should it come near. If you don’t do this the dumpling will fall apart when you cook it.

We started cooking some of the jiaozi by steaming them. We used a rice cooker filled with water with a metal basket on top. I had one of these when I lived in zhuan kou. They are the easiest way to cook rice I have ever seen. Rice is never overcooked or under-cooked. It’s always perfect. Rice cookers can also be used to boil eggs or to steam something.

Some of the dumplings came out great. Some came out horribly. Most were somewhere in between. How they came out depended on whether or not they had been closed properly. There are actually other, more creative ways to close them. If you want you can make them look fancy by the way you close the dumplings. These were some of my better ones. After a while we fried a few of the ones that had previously been steamed.

I have not tried to make any dumplings at home but I have thought about it several times since the party. When and if I do I will share the results with you here.