Almost as soon as I could write my own name, I was helping my mother in the kitchen. Most of the time I would be saddled with menial tasks, like peeling root vegetables or washing herbs, but my absolute favorite thing to do was help her assemble wontons.
We would sit at the island, with a big bowl of wonton filling and stacks of store-bought wrappers, and we’d fold hundreds of dumplings while a pirated Chinese soap opera VHS (overdubbed in Vietnamese) played in the background. My mom’s version is slightly different from the wontons you’d find in a typical Chinese restaurant. Ours were stuffed with pork and shrimp, thin slivers of cloud ear mushrooms, and sometimes, if they were in season, my mom would mix in a little blue crab meat into the filling. We’d eat the wontons in bowls of steaming broth, with fresh egg noodles, garlic chives, and crispy golden fried shallots sprinkled on top.
As I grew older, I discovered other varieties of dumpling. Some weekends, my family would eat brunch at our regular dim sum spot in Wheaton, Maryland, a place with plastic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and neon lights in the floor. Brusque older Chinese ladies with severely unflattering haircuts and pink bowties would roll by us pushing metal carts, and we’d point at what we wanted until the lazy susan in the center of our table was covered in dozens of bamboo containers of steaming hot har gow, and shu mai.
I had a good friend who lived just across the border, in Northern Virginia, and I’d often take the somewhat long-ish drive just to hang out with her. There was also the added advantage of gaining access to the stash of her mother’s wonderful kim chee mandu in the freezer, made with homemade fermented pickled spicy cabbage. I’d ask if her grandmother had buried the kim chee jars in the backyard to keep them cold, like I’d read in a book once. And she’d laugh and say, “Uh no, that’s what refrigerators are for.” She’d whisk together a quick dipping sauce with soy and a few slices of green chili, and we’d impatiently gobble down the dumplings, burning our mouths and not really caring because they were so good.
In Chicago, I had my first pierogi, purchased from a German meat market. A friend introduced me to Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which are dumplings, in a way, albeit it a hopped-up-on-steroids, mutant American version. For a long time, I made do with frozen Asian dumplings, bought at H Mart, and in a pinch, Trader Joe’s. It didn’t occur to me until quite recently that I could be making my own. It’s a bit of a project, but they are not at all difficult, especially if you use store-bought wrappers. Also, dumplings freeze very well, and are the perfect sort of thing to make in advance for quick weeknight dinners. The filling is infinitely adaptable—dumpling-making time is also a great opportunity to clean out your fridge. Try throwing in chopped greens, mushrooms, or switching out cilantro or scallions in lieu of the chives. On lazy Sundays, I’ll set up my laptop in the kitchen and watch illegally downloaded BBC costume dramas while I assemble these by the dozens. Then, on weeknights when I’m too exhausted or lazy to cook anything complicated, I’ll just heat up a pan for a quick dinner. We never ate kim chee in my house growing up, but somehow, these dumplings taste like home.
Kim Chi and Tofu Dumplings
Makes about 50 dumplings
12 oz. extra-firm tofu
1” fresh ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion
3 c. kim chee, drained
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
3/4 c. chopped chives
3/4 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 package dumpling/gyoza wrappers
In a food processor, pulse the tofu, ginger, garlic, onion, and kim chee in separate batches, for about 30-60 seconds each, until finely chopped. Keep the ingredients separate, and take care to drain the excess liquid from the kim chee. If you do not have a food processor, chopping by hand is okay too, just try to get the ingredients as fine as possible.
To assemble, wet the outer 1/2” edges of the dumpling wrapper. Place a scant teaspoon of filling in the center of the wrapper, and gently fold, pressing the edges to seal. You want a dense, tightly sealed dumpling, with no excess air inside. These can be cooked immediately, but they also freeze beautifully.
To freeze: Place the raw dumplings on a baking sheet, taking care to not let them touch, or they will stick together. Freeze for about 2 hours, and then transfer to plastic freezer bag. These can be cooked straight from the freezer, no need to defrost.
To cook: In a frying pan, heat 2 Tbsp. oil on medium heat. Add your dumplings in a single layer and cook until lightly golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan, quickly cover with a lid. Please be careful when adding the water to the hot oil, it will splatter. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Serve immediately.
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar (you can also substitute red wine or apple cider vinegars)
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 bird’s eye chili, minced (optional)