I am on a constant quest for good meals whose components can be kept around essentially indefinitely. A do-it-yourself Swanson’s for those days when cooking is out of the question (and there are many), but you don’t want to drop $12 on takeout.
I’m sad to say that I haven’t found that many exciting ones to date, and I would love to hear your suggestions. Rice and beans or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are great, but not all that thrilling. A plate of fried dumplings, however, does seem somehow a level above.
I don’t wrap my own dumplings, though I intend to try one of these days, but I want to share with you the three key tricks to excellent dumplings at home: shopping, double-cooking, and sauce.
Most supermarkets carry at least one, if not several, varieties of frozen dumplings, though most tend to be gyoza-style. Gyoza is the Japanese name for your basic ovoid, crimped-along-one-edge dumplings. They’re called jiaozi in Chinese or mandu in Korean. There are many other kinds of dumplings, but I know very little about them, and I don’t feel like making stuff up this morning. So go do your own shumai research.
Most supermarket dumplings are ok, but not great. They tend to be industrially manufactured and pre-cooked, so that they can be prepared in the microwave. They’re alright in a pinch, but less than ideal. Slightly better are the frozen dumplings you can get in Asian markets, which are also industrially manufacured, but tend to be done so by people more closely culturally connected to the dumplings in question. Judging by the staggering variety of brands, shapes, sizes, and fillings available in the relatively small Asian market near my house, I’d say frozen dumplings are pretty popular in Asian countries. Some brands are better than others, so shop around. Then tell me, because I’m a little overwhelmed.
But by far the best frozen dumplings – and often the cheapest – are the ones that can be bought from restaurants that also sell cooked dumplings. I don’t know how available these are most places, but any city with a chinatown and many others also will have a few cheap dumpling places. Most of these places will advertise bulk frozen dumplings, which are the same ones they’re handmaking and frying up for people eating in, and many of the ones that don’t advertise this option sell them frozen anyway. These dumplings tend to run about $5-8 for 30-50, and if you can get them, they’re definitely your best freezer-stocking option.
The trick with these dumplings is that they’re not pre-cooked, and if you just fry them up for 5 minutes or put them in the microwave, you’re in for a nice dose of ice-cold raw pork. (Yes, there are oher kinds of dumplings, including vegetarian ones, but today we’re talking pork.) Raw dumplings have to be boiled, and it is surprisingly hard to judge when they are done. The way dumplings tend to be seasoned makes the meat look a little red, even when fully cooked. Think about cooked dumplings that you buy: The filling is never quite the color of fully-cooked meat.
The best way I’ve found is to boil the dumplings until they all float to the top of the water, then boil them for another five minutes. If you’re very paranoid, you can boil them longer, but they start to fall apart and get tough. They should look about like this:
These are perfectly edible, but pretty boring, which is where the double-cooking comes in: Coat a frying pan with a decent layer of oil. (Did I say this was a healthy snack?) I use olive oil like I do with everything, but any oil will work fine. Turn the burner to medium and let the oil preheat, then add the dumplings CAREFULLY. They will still be wet on the outside and water + oil = spattering grease. I like to toss all the dumplings in at once and either stand back or cover them with a lid. They calm down after 30 seconds or so.
Gyoza are a little amorphous, but they essentially have three sides. I give them about 2 minutes on each side, but color is the best indicator, Check them regularly as the ones in the center of the pan will cook faster. Here’s about what I look for:
When all three sides are done, remove them to a plate with a paper towel to soak up excess oil. Unless you want to cut them in half, let them cool for a good five or ten minutes or you are in for some serious tongue-burning. The filling lets off a lot of juice and oil as it cooks and biting into one of these puppies fresh from the pan is like biting into a water balloon filled with scalding hot pork stock. Even after they cool, it’s not a bad idea to pierce them before biting so they don’t pop, but choose your own adventure.
I think I’ve done about enough dumpling babbling, so I’ll make this quick. Here’s what I do for sauce:
4 parts rice wine vinegar
2 parts soy sauce
1 part sesame oil
1 part sriracha or chili oil
I wish there were more items I could put this sauce on, it’s so good. You can leave out the spicy ingredient, reduce it, or apply it seperately. Up to you.
And that’s dumplings: Buy ’em, fry ’em, try ’em.