Culinary Corner: Chinese New Year

It’s the Year of the Tiger, and stomachs were indeed growling on the eve of Lunar New Year last Saturday in Dodd. On the menu: dumplings, dumplings and more dumplings.

These small doughy pockets are a New Year’s tradition not only because they resemble crescent-shaped coins for good luck, but also because they are so labor-intensive. “My aunt always says it takes a whole day to make a meal of dumplings and only 15 minutes to eat them,” Shuntu Kuang ’10 said as he cleaned some old chocolate-spattered plates that were lurking in the kitchen sink. “Now we can get ground meat in the stores, or pre-made dough or even whole frozen dumplings. But people used to grind the meat by hand. It seems irrational in terms of the effort, but hey, we eat dumplings.” Kuang shrugged as he washed out an empty bottle of Chinese vodka. As I later found out, this bottle would serve as a rolling pin.

A team of people had set up a chopping camp in the old restaurant booths in Dodd kitchen. Cheng Chai Chiang ’13, who comes from a vegetarian family, took charge of the vegetable dumpling contingent. As I watched two girls tackle a veritable branch of celery with a small butter knife, I began to understand the true meaning of labor-intensive. “It’s a massive undertaking,” Chiang said. “My whole family comes over, and everyone sits around chopping and talking.” Chiang is Buddhist and, along with foregoing meat, he also abstains from onions, garlic and leeks. “I’ve had to adapt at Williams,” he said. “You know, pick out the onions at Paresky.”

Back at the counter, Kuang had begun kneading the dough for the dumpling skins. The dough is simple flour and water, mixed to the right consistency with a tiny dash of hot water. “I’ve never handled dough this big before,” Kuang admitted as he slapped it around in an offhand, expert way.

“Is that dill?” I asked Ireane Cao ’10, as she washed the spindly-leafed herb in the sink. “I don’t know; I grew up in America,” she said. “My grandma is too exacting to let me make dumplings.” As the dill was dried, chopped and incorporated into a big pink bowl of ground pork, she talked about family life in Virginia. “We smoke meat on the back porch. My little sister is embarrassed to bring friends over because we have smoked animals hanging from the rafters.” Cao sported a glimmer in her eye as she reminisced. “Once we had a ‘pet’ turtle for a while, until my grandma hacked off its head in front of us kids. I think my sister was shaken up, but we all ate it in the soup.”

While those chopping vegetables began to wax poetic over the pairing of beer with chicken feet, I left to check on the progress of the skins station. The cooks had now divided the dough into small pebbles, each of which was flattened into a disk with the aid of a rolling pin. “You want it to be thicker in the center, so that the skin holds the filling and does not break,” Kuang said. I helped Kuang place a dollop of mixture in the middle of each delicate disk and pinch up the edges. The final product took the shape of a half-moon with an elegantly folded dorsal ridge, although my dumplings looked decidedly more slug-like. We then placed them into boiling water and plucked them out when they began to float.

The first batch was set on the counter, translucent and steaming. We crowded close, chopsticks poised in anticipation. The group passed around a special sort of dark, syrupy vinegar for dipping sauce. My dumpling was lumpy, hot and soft, with a tight ball of filling that I ended up eating separately. Doused in the sweet-sour sauce, the dumplings were addictive. The consensus: “The skin is too thick,” Kuang said, redoubling his efforts with the vodka bottle. “But you can’t beat fresh dumplings made from scratch. They’re good luck.”

Dumpling aficionado Christina Liu ’10 stopped by the kitchen to check our progress. “Things you do on the New Year foreshadow the rest of the year,” she explained. “You shouldn’t be mad, or depressed, as you don’t want to spend the year in that way. And you should pay off all debts.”

I asked her if she has any special plans for New Year’s Day. “Me? I’ll be spending tomorrow doing homework,” Liu said with wry grin. “I go to Williams.”