Monthly Archives: February 2012

Dumplings For Dummies

It’s been a while since the start of the Chinese new year.  The Chinese are into their Water Dragon year and they are hoping the economy will start looking up this year. Who isn’t?  With the state of affairs in the Eurozone and America, whether you’re Chinese or not, we all want the economy to be looking up.

At the girls’s school, I was invited to celebrate the CNY along with the children.  Why me?  Well, I am a bona fide Chinese after all, born to Chinese/Singaporean parents who hail from immigrant peasant stock.  My maternal grandparents come from Swatowa province in China.  My father’s folks, though, are a little different because they are well established in the Malayan peninsular for over 3 generations and they belong to a nomadic tribe of people called Hakka.  Daddy’s great grandfather came from China to work in the rubber plantations in Malaysia. On my father’s side, we are Peranakans and since the Chinese are patrilineal, I am a Peranakan by descent.  The Peranakans also celebrate CNY in a big way, having kept most of the Chinese traditions and festive celebrations.  So that means, I’ve been celebrating the CNY since the day I was born.  So obviously, I have lots of experience in this important Chinese celebration….. you’d think, anyway.

I’m always a little nervous when I have to represent “The Chinese”.  It’s a sad state of affairs, I know, when a person has difficulty representing who they are! It’s a major case of identity crisis!  My excuse is this: I’m Singaporean, albeit Chinese/Singaporean, besides I’m a Peranakan.  I am just not in the position to represent 1.3 billion people who speak 56 different languages depending on what part of China they hail from, with Mandarin Chinese being the nations’s only unifying language.

Anyway, my problem, not theirs.

During the school’s CNY celebrations, I learnt that in China, on New Year’s eve, families gather together for a reunion dinner in anticipation of the New Year and eat lots and lots of festive dishes pregnant with flavours and symbolisms.  One of them being – the Chinese Dumpling or jioazi.  The Chinese teacher doing the presentation taught me this.  I already know of the Reunion dinners, having missed out on them for over 20 years since leaving Singapore.  I have very fond memories of the delicious dishes that my grandmother used to cook for these dinners, only we didn’t have dumplings.  My late grandmother was Cantonese so the symbolic dishes she cooked up were very different. We had every else except dumplings; there were noodles, braised duck, steamed fish and a vegetarian dish steeped in symbolisms except no one bothered to tell me what they were about. This said dish consisted of very fine seaweed, a type of sea moss, that resembles black hair, stewed in a gravy made with air dried oysters.  Pork belly adds oomph to this dish and I remember talk about the entire thing being stewed for hours on end.  This dish has a pun to its name which in Cantonese means “fortunate happenings and good luck”.   Speak about identity crisis.  I couldn’t have done this presentation even if  I wanted to.  The children of the International School of Paris, although used to living international lives and being taught to be internationally minded, would be so confused.  I couldn’t be responsible for this.  Luckily I found someone whom I could delegate the job to. She’s the park teacher at school, born in Shanghai but brought up in New Zealand by authentic Chinese parents – more Chinese than I’ll ever be. Rule number one in management: When you can’t handle the job, delegate!

She explained to the children (and I was paying lots of attention) that the dumpling is a very important dish to partake of during the reunion dinner.  The dumpling itself being the quintessential symbol of unity and re-union.  It is in how the dumpling is made that this symbol of unity comes from.

As you may already know, the Chinese dumpling is a wheat based, meat filled parcel.  All the ingredients for the dumpling are mixed together before being used to fill a skin made from flour and then folded in a particular way so that the ingredients are kept intact in the cooking process which usually requires boiling.

There you go, the symbol of unity – tight familial bonds.  Family members all wrapped up together, united and strong.

I’m an expert at eating dumplings along with my family and tons of other people out there.  I’ve never made dumplings in any way that made me appreciate the labour and love that go into producing them.

After listening to Dani, the Chinese teacher explain why dumplings are so important and symbolic, I decided to hire myself a dumpling teacher to show me just how these little morsels of deliciousness are prepared.

My kawan, Cindy Z-P, a Korean who has lived all over the world, has a lady who comes and cooks for the family twice a week.  She can cook both Korean and Chinese.  Wow! Two birds with one stone, I thought.  Great news!  So I hired Mme Chian as well.

Mme Chian or elder sister Chian as I refer to her came with all the ingredients necessary for dumpling making:

1 kg of mince pork

3 bunches of Chinese chives, chopped into 0.5 cms length

1 bunch of Spring onions or green onions, chopped into the same length as chives

1 sliver of ginger, chopped finely

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 carrot, grated

2 cups of bean sprouts, chopped finely

1 piece of tofu (the firm type), chopped into small cubes

1 kg of organic Flour (farine de blé)

I watched her squeeze all excess water from the vegetables before adding them to the meat that she had flavoured with soya sauce, sesame oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper. She leaves the ingredients to take in the flavours of the marinade and proceeded to make the skins.

Adding water to the flour and an egg to bind, she mixes and kneads until a fine dough is produced.  To keep the dough moist, she puts it into a zip lock bag and leaves it aside for later.

Then she proceeds to prepare the storage equipment to place the wrapped dumplings.  This comprises of my chopping board that she wraps in foil. She explained that she needs an area for dumping the dumplings after they’ve been cooked so they can cool down for packing.  (In most cases, dumplings are prepared and consumed instantly, so they are piping hot and fresh.) I was kindly asked to clean (disinfect, rather) the draining area by my sink for this operation.  While I’m washing the cooling station, she is preparing the vat of water that is needed to boil the little gems.  To the water, she adds a pinch of salt and a drop of oil.  Then she wraps in tin foil a baking tray which she has retrieved from my oven to be used as a storage dish for the cooled dumplings.  My kitchen is segmented into various work stations.  I am impressed by all the improvisation that goes on. In a Chinese kitchen, there are no special contraptions for anything, everything is improvised.  I think about how complicated a French kitchen is with its myriad of contraptions and cooking tools and utensils and laugh at my purchase of a special asparagus holder.  I only bought is because being in Paris suddenly made me feel very lacking in terms of cooking utensils, naked and insecure in my kitchen, cooking asparagus without this special container.

It’s wrapping time.  She takes half a spoonful of meat and plops it into the middle of the skin which is round in shape, folds the two halves together and the corners to make a shape like a semi circled pillow.

She makes 20 in under 10 minutes, wrapping, folding, wrapping, folding.  I offer to help.  She shows me how and I make one in 10 minutes because I can’t get the folding right. I persist, wrap, fold, wrap, fold and I finally get it.  She is so proud of me and laughs.  We chat about all sorts of things, she, in her very heavily accented Mandarin and me, in my pidgin form.  We manage to understand each other – amazing.  I lack vocabulary and she makes up for it by signing or pointing. She laughs again when I finally get her.

She tells me about Liaoning, where she is from. Being so close to the North Korean border, she also speaks Korean.  Her grandfather is Korean, she tells me, where he escaped into China, running away from poverty stricken North Korea.

She tells me about her daughter who has recently graduated from the “Big School” or University and is now in Beijing working.  Her husband is in South Korea, also working and she has been in Paris for the past 7 years.  In this way, both spouses hope to earn enough to retire back to China by leveraging on the interests earned from their incomes in both the Won and Euro against the Renmenbi.

We wrap, fold, chat.  She tells me that in Liaoning, they eat dogs.  I raised my eyebrows at her, signalling to her “let’s no go there, lady”.  But facial cues are different in different social scenarios and she doesn’t understand me and continues.  They’re wild dogs, she tells me, not the lap dogs that I’m thinking of.  These wild dogs are big and “very wild” (her words) and they have to be cooked in a special way with special herbs, to eliminate the strong odour of their flesh.  Someone, expert in slaughtering these dogs, comes to the special restaurants where wild dog stew or soup is served to take care of the dogs and by that she means, kill them.  While I’m listening to her, I’m thinking that this is really not a very good case for the people of China in convincing some other people in the Western world that eating dog is a good thing, just like eating deer or wild boar.  Elder sister Chian actually says that wild dog meat is like any other type of meat. Nobody bats an eyelid about eating dogs in Northern China. To me, it’s like saying that it’s good to eat that huskie, wild and savage as it is.  I’m not convinced but I don’t say anything, it’s too political.  I wrap and fold, wrap and fold and just listen, wrapped up in my own thoughts and culture shock.

I cast my mind back to the day that my girlfriend and I were walking her dog, a little yorkshire terrier, in Kensington Park, London when an old and very eccentric English lady pointed to my friend’s dog and told everyone concerned to be careful in case I, pointing an accusatory finger at me, end up cooking the mutt.

The water is ready and she drops the dumplings gently, two by two, into the pot.  Then she returns to the folding station and wraps and folds some more.  The water comes to a boil and she tips a small cup of cold water into the pot.  The bubbling stops and she leaves the pot alone.  I ask how long the dumplings usually take to be cooked.  She explains that I have to tip in cold water twice before they are ready and on the second tipping, I have to retrieve the dumplings immediately.  Don’t let the water boil over because the dumplings will break, she warns.  So I don’t have to watch the clock, I say, just the pot!  This brings to mind that a watched pot never boils but who’s to argue with a wise old Chinese lady who has cooked dumplings like this for time eternal, just like her mother and ancestors before her. I am humbled immediately.

It took us 4 hours to complete the task of making and cooking these dumplings.  She leaves me with over 200 little gems of deliciousness that I served up for dinner that night accompanied by a dish of soya sauce infused with a drop of sesame oil for the children and the same concoction but with an addition of chilli powder for the Italian and me.

Dumpling making for a dummy like me has been a wonderful learning experience.  She will teach me how to roll the skins she says in part 2 of Dumplings for Dummies.  I can’t wait.

In the process, Big Sister Chian and I became friends, bonded by the laborious nature of wrapping and folding and cooking, then cooling the dumplings to be stored in freezer bags for storage, chatting and laughing all the time.  I envisioned many a females on the day of the Reunion wrapping and folding, chatting away, exchanging news of adventures and love in a country kitchen, happy to be reunited with their sisters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers in “laojia”, the old family home before the start of every New Year….. I am reminded that I belong to this tradition and I instantly feel proud of my roots.

*** Kawan kawan, please bear with me. I will be posting photos of my first class in Dumplings 101 in the next blog post.  I am experimenting with a new way of blogging, text first followed by photos in a separate blog, to see if my “fans” like it…. please feel free to comment.