Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dim Sum all day

The feeling of your stomach hollow with hunger, your thoughts weakened and bent over to one dish only. Eating it, alone, will sate your appetite - the notion of any other food is unappealing, ridiculous. Consumption of another meal will leave you unhappy, unfulfilled. You know what you want and you won’t be able to rest until you have it.

I am craving dumplings. Not Atora-rich, spongy baubles sat atop a beef stew but Chinese-style, delicately wrapped objects that are plucked from bamboo steamer baskets and dipped in salty soy. I want to sink myself into the chewy dough, through to the springy, subtly seasoned filling. I want to bathe it in dipping sauce, lovingly, before cramming its entirety into my mouth. There are many places in London where I could get my dumpling fix - most places in China Town, obviously, along with contemporary attempts like Ping Pong. Going to any of them would be a jim-dandy idea. Sadly, seeing as my craving is not a one day event, but a month long extravaganza, eating dim sum out on every needy occasion would prove to be a costly fixation. So there is only one thing for it: I need to make a glut of them myself.

Dragon's Inn, Gerrard Street

I may love to devour them but I am no expert, so I go to my two most readily available resources - my flatmate and the internet. My flatmate and his girlfriend are accomplished dumpling makers and turn out the most perfect parcels worthy of any dumpling bar. He attempts to show me how he folds wontons with an imaginary wrapper, held in mid-air, but befuddles himself with his middle-distance dumpling folding. I’m not helping by asking a torrent of unanswerable questions. Sometimes, I'm not sure I make an apt pupil. Later on, he gets the definitive method from his girlfriend and everyone is happy.

The internet, as usual, is comforting and confusing all at the same time. Clicking through unhelpful page after unhelpful page, I'm not sure whether there is a precise science to what goes in a dumpling, and finding alternative folding techniques (just for a bit of variety) seems impossible. What I eventually learn is that fillings are pretty arbitrary in their ingredient ratios and it is up to the individual as to what to season them with. In terms of how to wrap them, there seems to be very little advice on this. A fan of Siu Mai (open faced pork and prawn dumplings, literally translated as "make and sell"), I find a do-able recipe for the filling and then after much digging, glean a solid method on how to assemble them. I know I will have to end up roughly tripling the quantities based on the amount of pork mince I've already bought and stashed in the freezer - this is obviously important because it means I need to make sure I get enough dumpling skins together.

I make my excited excursion to China town and pick up the rest of the things I need - light soy sauce and most importantly, dumpling wrappers. For this first attempt I decide to use pre-made ones since I don't want to fret about getting the dumpling dough's consistency perfect - the main objective is to end up with a stockpile of dumplings - not impress Alan Yau.

The end result was just that - I made over 50 and they live in my freezer now, anticipating the fragrant heat of the bamboo steamer. They're fantastically convenient and are the most classy frozen ready meal you could ever hope for. Frozen dumplings are perfect for when you come home from a hard day's graft because they require little attention whilst they cook. It means that rather than standing over the stove stirring, you can go have that necessary shower and then come back to a steamingly delicious basket of bundles. What's not to love?

One thing I do need to mention is that if you are cooking dumplings from frozen, they do need more time and although they may look steamed through, they may not be (it's not too pleasant biting into what appears to be a cooked dumpling only to find the middle is still an oozy raw pink). I'd give them about 20 minutes to be safe.

Actually, there's another thing. My last point that needs pontificating: the pork:prawn ratio should be 50:50 but I had no where near as much prawn as I did pork mince and was unable to get hold of more before I made my dumplings. I will adhere to these proportions on my next attempt, meaning that I will have to increase the seasonings accordingly and use more wrappers. You would probably need another packet or two. With this recipe, it's doubtful that you will be lucky enough to use all the filling up and all the skins. If you have spare mixture, you can form it into balls and steam it nakedly unwrapped, and perhaps then float them in a steamy noodle broth. If you have wrappers left, cover them tightly with clingfilm and freeze for when you start your dumpling production line again.

Siu Mai (Pork and Prawn Dumplings), wrapped three ways
(makes roughly 50)

For the filling

  • 500g free range pork mince (not too lean)
  • 200g raw prawns, shelled (I found that Waitrose sells some in their freezer compartment which are supposedly 'sustainably sourced')
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 large piece of ginger
  • 2 small cloves of garlic
  • 2 ½ tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 ½ tbsp rice wine (I used sake because that's what I had)
  • 2 ½ tbsp sesame oil (very important - it is this ingredient that gives the Siu Mai their distinct flavour)
  • 3 tbsp cornflour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 3 packets of wonton/dumpling wrappers (there’s roughly 18 in each)

Place the pork in a large mixing bowl and stir to soften until it looks glossy. If it still seems a little unyielding, add a tablespoon of vegetable/flavourless oil and stir through. Chop your prawns up so they are in tiny chunks but do not go so far as to turn them paste-like. Stir these thoroughly in to the pork mince. Finely mince the spring onions, garlic and ginger and stir in with all the seasoning ingredients and flour until completely combined. Now for the wrapping. I bought both round and square skins but I ended up preferring to work with the round ones. When you're wrapping them, using a pastry brush to wet the edges of the pastry means your fingers stay away from dough-damaging water and will make your folding much more competant. Bear in mind that the skins do dry out easily, so try and keep the wrappers your aren't using covered and also do the same to the dumplings you've assembled.

Making 50 does take some time but I'm a lover of repetitive fiddly tasks, so the idea of making dim sum all day does not bore me in the slightest.

'Proper' Siu Mai

Spoon the filling in the centre of a round wrapper, wet the edges and then lay the whole lot carefully over an encircled thumb end forefinger and push downwards so the filling and half the wrapper drop through the hole made by your digits and the wrapper begins to wrinkle. Place the half-formed dumpling on a surface and continue to pinch and pleat the edges together to form a open topped, dumpy cylinder. Top up with a little more filing and press it down to make sure it fills the interior fully. Using your finger and thumb again, squeeze halfway up the dumpling to give it a waist and tap is gently on the work surface to make sure its posterior is flat enough to make it stand up by itself. As you can see I was a little conservative with the filling so I'd fill them up to the top next time.

Wonton/tortellini style

Spoon a little filling the in centre of a circular wrapper and then wet the edge of half the pastry round. Fold the wrapper in half to make a semi circle and press the pastry down working from the filling outwards in an attempt to exclude all the air. Once sealed down, wet the two corners and gently pull them together (I'm not talking about folding them over the lump of filling but pulling them down towards each other as if you were trying to draw the imaginary other half of the circle with them. The rest of the dumpling will curl up. You should then be able to just overlap the points and stick them down.

Pyramidal shaped

Ok, so I saw these in Ping Pong and thought they were smart. I invented my own way of folding these just for some variety. After placing some filling on the centre of a square wrapper, wet all the edges and bring all the corners up to the centre of the filling. You then need to painstakingly pinch all the touching sides together, one by one. This is the most impressive shape and good for novelty value, but don't judge a dumpling by its covering - they taste the same regardless of how you wrap them and since this is time consuming, the wonton/tortellini method is best for speed and ease.

Whichever shape you make, you then need to cook them. Open ones and pyramid shaped ones should be steamed to preserve their form but the tortellini can be boiled in broths. Bamboo steamers are traditional and impart their own flavour to the dumplings. They can be picked up really cheaply in Chinese supermarkets - don't get ripped off by big commercial kitchenware shops.

So there you have it: my first, very basic attempt at dumplings. The ones you see here are not authentic in the slightest. Restaurant Siu Mai use extremely thin wrappers that remain papery once cooked but when steamed/boiled, these bought wrappers swell to a much larger thickness. Regardless, the filling tastes just as aromatic and juicy as that in the Siu Mai found in dumpling bars, so if you just need to quash a craving, these don't do too badly.