Early last year, we conducted an exhaustive survey of the Chinese takeout options in the greater Portland area, sampling several restaurants’ versions of steamed pork dumplings, sweet and sour chicken, fried wontons, and scallion pancakes. It was a sampling of our favorite classics from the “greatest hits” collection of Chinese take-out, and we searched far and wide for versions of these basic dishes that would satisfy the near-weekly appetite we have for delivery Chinese. It was, by all accounts, a dismal failure.
Our bar for Chinese food isn’t set very high, and it certainly isn’t “authentic.” We’re not asking for culinary genius, here, instead looking simply for dumplings that are cooked competently and sweet ‘n’ sour sauce that didn’t begin its life as airplane glue. Something to drink cheap beer to. Something to watch Survivor by. Instead, our search for Chinese take out in Portland led us to alarmingly large foil sacks of empty fried wonton skins, puffy chicken donuts bathed in cornstarchy syrup, and gigantic, absurd dumplings that exploded boiling water all over our burned chins before dropping their tiny payload of shriveled pork onto the floor.
In a year where experts estimate that more than 250 new Mexican restaurants opened in Portland, the options presented by Chinese take-out restaurants still fall woefully short of food you should be eating voluntarily. Rather than re-tread this old ground (though we certainly invite you to do so), we decided to dedicate this first week in 2012 to an exploration of our favorite recipes for classic Chinese takeout-style dishes.
To start the series, we decided to tackle our all-time favorite flimsy tin of Chinese wonder: The steamed (or in this case, boiled) pork dumpling. Commonly served by the half-dozen in a round takeout container half-full of cloudy water, our ideal dumpling is meaty, with a thickish, doughy wrapper, dipped in a mixture of soy, rice wine vinegar, and ginger. The first bite should break the seal, revealing a pocket perfect for holding more sauce. In our version, a little bit of cabbage acts as a binder for the filling, and keeps the inside from getting too dense. The dough is thicker than you’d find in a translucent potsticker, folded in little pleats, before being boiled and then (optionally) pan-fried on one side.
In China, male children are selectively bred for their dumpling-pleating abilities, so don’t feel bad if it takes you a few dozen tries and a few YouTube videos to get a respectable looking result. Ours certainly aren’t much to look at, but you’ll see that the boiling disguises some of the mistakes you may make during folding. Don’t worry if they end up looking more like day-old pierogies, unfried empanadas, or a bit of a chewed-up foot wrapped in a fat noodle. They will still be better than anything you can get from one of the numerous local Chinese super buffets.
Steamed Pork Dumplings with Homemade Wrappers
Adapted from a recipe in Serious Eats; Makes about 40 dumplings, or 25-30 by the time you get the hang of it and throw out the duds.
For the dough:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup boiling water
For the filling:
- 1/2 a small head of napa cabbage, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 scallions, roughly chopped
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoons dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons sugar
For the dipping sauce:
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon scallion, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon ginger, grated on a microplane
For the dough:
Place flour in food processor. With machine running, slowly drizzle in water until cohesive dough is formed. Allow dough to ride around inside of processor for 30 seconds. Form into a ball using floured hands, and transfer to a bowl. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for at least 30 minutes.
For the filling:
Place cabbage and salt in food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to a strainer set over a bowl, and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place scallions, pork, soy sauce, sherry, and sugar in bowl of food processor. Pulse into a paste, transfer to a large bowl, and set aside.
After cabbage has purged, squeeze any remaining moisture out with your fists, then transfer to the bowl with the pork. Fold together with a spatula.
Divide dough into 4 sections, and each section into 10 small tablespoon-sized balls, making 40 balls total. On a well-floured work surface, roll each ball into a round 3 1/2- to 4-inches in diameter. Arrange wrappers on a floured board or parchment; if you try and stack them, they may fuse back together into one giant dough ball.
To form dumplings, place 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of a wrapper. Moisten the edges of the wrapper with a wet fingertip or a pastry brush. Fold in half and pinch the bottom-right corner closed. Pleat the front edge of the wrapper repeatedly, pinching the edge closed after each pleat until the entire dumpling is sealed. Transfer sealed dumplings to a lightly floured wooden or parchment-lined board.
For the dipping sauce:
Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside at room temperature.
To cook dumplings:
In a large pot of boiling water, cook dumplings 6-8 at a time, for three minutes per batch. Stop here, or, for pan-fried dumplings, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet and sear bottoms of dumplings until golden brown. Serve immediately with dipping sauce.