Who knew that the humble dumpling could occupy such an important place in one of Chinese culture’s biggest celebrations?
During Chinese New Year, which fell on last Monday (Jan. 26) this year, dumplings are made and consumed in Chinese communities around the globe.
At family-run Tommy’s Wok in Carmel, pan-fried dumplings, commonly known as pot stickers, are one of the most popular items on the menu.
Here, the dough is made from scratch and hand-formed into dumpling skins which are filled with a mixture of fresh ground pork and Chinese cabbage. Then they’re pan-fried and steamed.
Pot stickers may be more popular in the U.S., but in China dumplings are traditionally boiled during the New Year. The dipping sauces are different too. At Tommy’s, pot stickers are served with a special sauce (see recipe, right). Boiled dumplings are usually dipped into shredded ginger soaked in Chinese vinegar.
In the restaurant kitchen, Chef Phu Mao, one of Tommy’s relations, rolls the dough into a skinny log and cuts it into quarter-sized nuggets. With a dowel in his right hand, Phu rolls them into thin, translucent skins. Holding a dumpling skin in his left palm, he deftly spreads filling in the center, folds the dumpling over and seals it into a half moon.
Wrapping dumplings takes skill and Adam Mao, brother of restaurant owner Tommy Mao, knows it. It took him a year to perfect the art of folding and pleating the crimped edges. “I made dumplings three times a day, twice a week,” he says.
Dumpling-making is often a tradition passed down through generations. Because it involves a lot of fiddly work (namely rolling, chopping and wrapping) dumplings are best made in groups, and in bulk. Families huddle together to make hundreds at one go and eat them over the course of the winter.
The harsh climate in Northern China makes dumplings a popular food in this region. Not to mention the lack of refrigeration, adds Adam. “It snows real heavy and people would put dumplings outside and they will stay cold in the freezing snow.” When it’s time to eat, you just take a handful of dumplings from the outdoor “freezer” and cook them.
Hence dumplings make entertaining the steady stream of family and friends who stop by for a visit during Chinese New Year a cinch; they can be made ahead and are fast to cook. “You cannot make [visitors] wait,” Adam says, shaking his head. “With dumplings, you can just grab and cook.”
Like all the traditional New Year foods and dishes, dumplings are also full of symbolism. Thanks to their resemblance to shoe-shaped gold and silver ingots, they are believed to bring good luck and good fortune. In ancient times, gold, silver, and precious stones were stuffed into dumplings, and today, clean coins are hidden randomly in a batch of dumplings, waiting for a lucky child to find them. The symbolism remains the same: If you bite into a dumpling containing the lucky icon, you’ll be showered with good luck and riches in the coming year.
It’s not too late– Chinese New Year celebrations last 15 days. Make a batch of dumplings or dine at the nearest Chinese restaurant for a dose of good fortune.
TOMMY’S WOK Mission between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel • 11:30am-2:30pm; 4:30-9:30pm; closed Mondays. • 624-8518.