Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Dumpling

A few weekends ago, Abe's cousin and her husband stopped by Ann Arbor for a 3 day visit. Which we decided was a perfect occasion to throw our 9th-ish something-annual Chinese dumpling party. The dumpling party started back when Abe & I were first married. We threw a Chinese triatharon (haha, so PC) for some occasion - Chinese new year maybe? - which involved making dumplings, playing board games, and besting Abe's little brother at Smash Brothers.

We downsized subsequent parties to just the dumplings, and standardized the format: make the filling ahead of time, as people arrive they bao (fold) the dumplings, we cook them up, people start eating once they reach labor quota (the unofficial rule is to bao about 2 dumplings for every 1 you eat). Sometimes we play games, but mostly just sit around, talking and eating fresh dumplings as they come.

Admittedly, the initial impetus for these parties was that Abe & I think dumplings are absolutely delicious, but time-consuming to make. Friends = cheap labor. After a party, we have a few hundred leftover dumplings to freeze for the weeks to come.

But we've discovered something else in the process. Most sociologists wouldn't argue with the fact that one of the best ways to bring people together is to have them share a meal with each other. But if you really want to bring people together, then don't just have them share a meal with each other, have them make it together. At our dumpling parties, people warm up to each other as they teach one another the art of bao-ing, laugh over failed attempts, and rejoice in successes. Instantaneous, shared, meaningful experience. Once we get to eating, the conversation just naturally flows. The feeling is warm, alive, comfortable.

As a test of our theory, we had about 17 people from the singles ward over last weekend for a pizza party and movie night. [Note of explanation: a "singles ward" is an organizational unit in the LDS church I belong to, made up of unmarried church members ages 18-30. Abe & I have been asked to help in the singles ward, which basically means get to know them, help them with any problems, and be an example of a good married couple.] The point of the evening was for us to get to know them, them to get to know us, and them to get to know each other. The latter perhaps being the most important.

Instead of having 5 hot, homemade pizzas ready for them when they arrived, we had a lump of pizza dough, a bag of unchopped veggies, and cans of sauce. As people arrived Abe ushered them into the kitchen where I gave out assignments: open cans of sauce, chop the green peppers, roll out this piece of dough, flour the pizza pan. All done in the calculating hope that people would feel comfortable in our house, and comfortable with each other.

We think our planned work. My favorite piece of supporting anecdotal evidence came from later in the evening. I asked Abe to get the flour out for me, and he said, "Okay, where's the flour?" and another guy in the group walked into the kitchen and guided Abe to the right cupboard.

Dumplings in Action (also, before the party really started)

Interested in the recipe?

1 head regular cabbage
1 head Napa cabbage
1 head bok choy
5 carrots (I use carrots for veggie dumplings, not pork dumplings)
Garlic and ginger - about 2 Tbs each, hard to put too much in
1/2 bunch cilantro
1 bunch green onions
3 lbs ground pork (substitute w/ about 2 c of bean paste for veggie dumplings)

2 cups soy sauce
1/3 cup vinegar
1/3 cup sesame oil
1 1/2 tsp spiced chili oil (optional)

300 Dumpling skins

Chop all the veggies (cabbages, bok choy, carrots, garlic, ginger, cilantro, green onions) VERY fine. You probably need a food processor to get it fine enough. I coarsely chop everything up and then put it in a food processor a bit at a time with lots of water and grind away. Then I strain all the water out. This is the worst part of preparation. I like to do it the day before the party because it's tiring.

Mix ground pork (or bean paste) into veggies. Abe's brother, Sam, once read that you should ALWAYS stir the ingredients in the same direction to keep the right consistency. A zen thing. We tried this on our last batch, and I think they were the best we've ever had. But don't consider 1 trial conclusive evidence.

Add about half of the sauce into the pork and veggie mixture and stir.

Now you're ready to fold. Put about 1 tsp of filling in the center of a dumpling skin. Don't try and stuff it very full. You will be tempted. But if you put too much in, your dumplings will fall apart. Wet the outside edge of the skin with a little water (dip finger in water and slide finger around outside edge). Fold the edges together (turning the circle skin into a semi-circle), and press firmly.

Fold and fold and fold. And then cook the dumplings. Boil a pot of water. Put the dumplings in. Wait for the water to come to a boil and let it boil for just a minute. Then dump a cup or two of cold water in and bring the water to a boil again. Boil for just a minute and then take the dumplings out. It should take about 10-12 minutes. The purpose of the cold water is the keep the water at barely a boil - this helps the skins stay somewhat firm, and not get slimy and fall apart.

Enjoy with rice and the rest of the sauce drizzled on top.


Janssen said...

I miss those parties like crazy. They were, indeed, always full of laughter and notably absent awkardness.

Ben and Sarah said...

Why didn't you ever have a dumpling party with us? Our conversations are always so awkward and forced. Dumplings could have helped. Is it wrong to do this on a nightly basis? I really hate cooking dinner.

Erin said...

Good point Sarah. We've never tried dumplings out as a solution to familial problems.

We will make a big batch to bring to Christmas this year. They will ease the tense yuletide atmosphere. Dumpling in one hand, chocolate-covered cherry cookie in the other. cookies...

Sherry said...

I've actually been meaning to ask you for this recipe for ages.

Dave and Margaret said...

Ah yes - Dumpling parties! *sighs a nostalgic sigh* To be honest, though, we would probably still want to hang out with you even without the dumplings.

Megan said...

We do love your dumpling parties! I do not mind being cheap labor if I get to eat the dumplings.

Dawn said...

Sorry I missed the last dumpling party. Please don't forget to invite me to the next one!

Maren Hansen said...

Sweet, I finally know what our "tenants" in our house look like! Can't wait to actually meet them in person and thank them for saving my ridiculous garden! Hmm, I'll have to rip off your idea sometime when we have friends over...

danlo said...

We totally got invited to the original triatharon. That party was off the hook.

Jaime said...

I am very eager to attempt this recipe. I'll let you know how it goes.