It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.
This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.
I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.
Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December. She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.
We got together in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.
At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.
It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.
My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below – click on them to see the full image.
By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe – Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise – as well as my two favourite Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings – vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.
Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.
We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.
Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.
The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website.
Chun jie kuai le – happy Spring Festival.
Ma dao chong dong – wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.
Sometimes life has a way of turning full circle.
Last New Year’s Day I remember remarking on the beautiful morning in Duncannon and the start of a “shiny new year”. Within three days we had lost Derry’s mother and within a few weeks his younger sister Deirdre. Both deaths were unexpected. Suddenly the new year didn’t seem so shiny any more. But you get through things and you get on with it and baby Dermot arrived on the 5th of February to brighten all our loves (that should have read “lives” but the slip seems somehow appropriate). And the year ended on a high note with a true Shananigans of a Christmas, followed by Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s Christening on 28th December.
I’ve so much to write. So many moments and emotions to absorb after the whirlwind of the last few weeks since Shane, Shan and Dermot arrived on 15th December – a bewildered small child plucked out of his familiar Beijing apartment and plunged into the confusing sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas who quickly made our home his own – followed a week later by nine of Shan’s Chinese family and my daughter and her husband from Australia.
But I’m going to start near the end, back in Shankill, after Claire and her husband Mike had been and gone, leaving behind the imprint of their infectious personalities, after the intensity of the Christmas celebrations.
Truth be told I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much. I always feel as if I am clinging on for those last few hours to the dying year, to the memories of those loved and lost in the year gone by and with a sense of foreboding about what the coming year may hold. This year I was determined it would be different. It was the first time our Chinese in-laws had celebrated a western new year and it was our own unique Gathering to end a year of Gatherings. I wanted to see it out in style.
Robert Jacob provided my inspiration – a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. I had attended his course at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School in December. I saw how he put it all together in three to four hours. I had blogged about the menu in my post on the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas and, despite being tired after a two weeks of non-stop entertaining, I was determined to deliver.
Well 8 hours of preparation later, including a minor pastry crisis, several phone calls to Robert and accepting his offer to make the gold-dusted Chocolate Log for me, I served up the full buffet up to our enthusiastic guests including our close friends from across the road. Our Chinese in-laws loved the food and how it was presented. They described it as like a painting – that’s what happens when your teacher is a former fashion designer. There were many warm speeches during the meal marking the extraordinary two weeks we have shared together and suddenly it was nearly midnight.
Preparing and serving the meal left me little time to be maudlin but on the stroke of midnight our thoughts were with Derry’s Mum whom we had spoken to at that moment last year. During the conversation she had proposed 28th December to my Mum as the date for Shane and Shan’s wedding, saying that as the elders of the family they should get to decide these things. Well she did and it had felt good to honour her plan last week.
My thoughts were also with my own Dad. New Year’s Eve 1999, when every household in Ireland had been given a Millennium candle, was also our first in Duncannon and, as we lit that candle to mark the turning of the century, all of us present including my Mum and Dad, my brothers and our children, signed the little note that came with it. Every year since then I have lit that candle for a few minutes for all our loved ones including those that have passed away and those now living far from home. This year my new Chinese extended family and our friends all wrote on the card to mark what surely has been our most extraordinary year end of the century.
That New Year’s Eve meal was the second last culinary challenge of Shananigans Christmas. The last was to be on Thursday night when I planned to make dumplings for us all, mirroring the Chinese New Year tradition and also their association of dumplings with family members parting on a journey – a reminder of how family wrap around you wherever you are in the world.
I got as far as making my two favourite fillings – lamb with butternut squash and cumin and vegetarian which I had learned in Black Sesame Kitchen cookery school in Beijing – and a batch of homemade Chilli Oil as taught to me by Hutong Cuisine. I was about to start the dumpling dough when my visitors tumbled into the house, windswept and rain-spattered from their sight-seeing and shopping trip to Dublin city centre, in a frenzy of discarded wet shoes and coats, shopping bags and retrieved slippers.
Within minutes my kitchen had been taken over and become a super-efficient Chinese production line. Clearly in charge Da Gu (first auntie) set about making her own pork and Chinese cabbage filling with added zing from ground star anise and cousin Jing Jing made an enormous batch of dough using every scrap of dumpling flour in the house. Xiao Gu (second auntie), Shan, her sister in law Shui Mei, cousin Wei Wei and little Xuan Xuan made the dumpling in relays – cutting out ropes of dough and rolling out the circular wrappers, the younger in-laws filling and folding them until every surface in the kitchen, every platter and cutting board I possess was covered with dumplings just as I always imagined a Chinese kitchen on New Year’s eve.
Even Gao Feng – Shan’s brother – was drafted in to cream garlic to go with the black vinegar and chilli oil condiments. I was redundant in my own kitchen and relegated to the happy role of observer. Dumplings made, it was time to cook them in batches, boiled and pot-sticker style, and platter after platter appeared at the dining table. It is amazing how many dumplings you can eat at one sitting without noticing.
It quickly became obvious that we had enough dumplings to feed a small army. And so, after a brief stint in the freezer, the dozens of left-overs travelled with us to Ardee yesterday evening where we marked the first anniversary of the passing of a very special lady, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
Dumplings for remembrance and family and the ties that bind.
Below are some photos of those two very special evenings in our home and the recipe for Da Gu’s pork and cabbage filling.
Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following my tales and learning experiences in the year gone by.
By the way for those of you who would like to learn more about Chinese cooking, my teacher turned friend Robert Jacob and I are collaborating in a Discover China Class at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of 16th January at 7 pm. You can book places here. Shane, Shan and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who is a fabulous Chinese cook will join us for an evening of good food and conversation. I’m hoping that Marie McKenna, who has reproduced nearly every recipe on this blog, will be there too.
Da Gu’s Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Filling
This is not a precise recipe. it is the way Da Gu has always made her filling and the trick is to get the right balance of pork, vegetables and seasoning and to use the warm oil to get the sloppy consistency of a thick batter.
Da Gu recommends using ground star anise with pork (she ground it in my pestle and mortar) and ground sichuan peppercorns with beef and lamb.
- 500g minced pork
- A thumb of ginger finely minced
- 2 medium leeks, white part only, finely minced
- 1 to 2 tbs of soy sauce
- 1 tsp of ground star anise
- One head of Chinese cabbage, finely chopped and squeezed very hard to remove excess liquid
- About 100 ml of vegetable oil heated to moderate and allowed cool slightly.
- Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
- In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
- Mix this well with the meat mixture and season with salt to taste – only add the salt after the oil to avoid drawing more liquid from the cabbage.
PS. The next post will be photos Shan and Shane’s Wedding and Dermot’s Christening
It was a gloomy November Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after I had arrived back from Beijing. Winter had sneaked up on Ireland while I was away, the evenings were closing in and there was a noticeable nip in the air. I was jet-lagged and disoriented, my head and heart still drifting between two worlds, seeing in my mind’s eye the now familiar rituals of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s Sunday afternoon.
I took refuge in cooking. I made two large batches of dumplings while catching up on the episodes of Downton Abbey that I had missed. As I punched and kneaded the dough and found the rhythm of rolling out near perfect discs, I felt the connection with my family and the world I had left behind in Beijing. Cooking is therapy.
It was Li Dong on 7th November, the first day of the Chinese winter. As if on cue, the weather in Beijing had changed from a balmy 17 degrees to a sharp, dry chill in bright sunshine. Legend has it that if you don’t eat dumplings on Li Dong, your ears will fall off when the cold snap comes. I was taking no chances and tucked in with gusto to Shan’s MaMa’s pork, cabbage and shrimp dumplings served with her homemade chilli paste.
The previous day I had attended a dumpling class at Black Sesame Kitchen. This was my third dumpling class. I had been to one at Hutong Cuisine in March and another led by the chefs at China Sichuan in Dublin during the last Spring Festival. But you can never learn enough about making dumplings and every class brings it’s own tips and tricks plus some lovely new recipes for fillings. Besides dumpling lessons are great fun and a great way to make new friends over a glass of Chinese beer (loosens the dumpling wrapping skills I’m told!) as you compare your misshapen efforts. I came home with left-over dough which MaMa turned into noodles for Dermot’s dinner. No waste in China, ever.
Now back in Dublin, I wasn’t taking any chances on the falling off ears thing (it wouldn’t be a good look for the wedding!) and I also wanted to put the techniques into practice before I forgot them again. Continue reading Making Chinese Dumplings (jiaozi) from Scratch – an unlikely cure for jet-lag
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do another dumpling and noodle class. After all I’d seen a demo by Chef Ricky of China Sichuan at our Taste of China event in Cooks Academy. And then I’d spent Wednesday afternoon making what seemed like hundreds of dumplings with my quin jia (Shan’s MaMa) in the tiny kitchen of Shane and Shan’s apartment. I had watched in awe as she flew through rolling out perfect rounds from a simple flour and water dough, using what resembles a short length of broom handle as a rolling pin, and deftly wrapping them into perfect parcels for boiling or frying.
And then there was the small matter of the hand-pulled noodles. That experience, which reminded me of rolling balls of wool for my Mum when she used to knit aran sweaters when I was a child, had left me feeling that I should stick to the knitting, or in my case stir-fries. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to become a Chinese pastry chef, too old to learn new tricks etc. And there are always frozen dumpling wrappers in the Asia market.
I had watched and tried to learn from Ma Ma, getting comfortable at kneading and proving the pastry and reasonably competent at mixing the filling with just two chopsticks, stirring in one direction only, but rolling out of the pastry to make attractive parcels eluded me.
We were tired after our early morning market tour and a full morning of Sichuan cooking and I was tempted to give the dumpling and stir-fried noodle class a miss and sneak back to cuddle baby Dermot. Confession: I even fell asleep sitting upright over a Starbucks coffee mocha on our lunch break, (coffee being my only concession to a western way of life when in China). But we had signed up for the class a week earlier so we stuck to the original plan.
We were joined for the afternoon by the two lovely young Chinese and French girls who had been at our Tuesday noodle class and a fantastic young couple from Montreal – she French Canadian, he Lebanese. Elisa is now a political TV journalist who once ran her own restaurant where she had cooked for Leonard Cohen a number of times, definitely enough to hook me in. I would have loved to have had longer to get to know them.
So buoyed by the cheerful and enthusiastic company and Chun Yi’s good-humoured tuition, I gritted my teeth and decided to crack this dumpling-making lark for once and for all.
We learned about why you use salt or high gluten flour in some doughs and not in others and the effect of using more or less water on the consistency of the dough and then we got down to work, preparing the dough, leaving it to rest while making up our fillings
I was well pleased with my length of dough, ready to cut into individual wrappers.
And suddenly it just happened, the trick of rolling the dough 90 degrees each time you cut a length and then squeezing each one slightly at the sides to get regular shapes; the pleasure of flattening each piece with the palm of your hand; the knack of rolling out the pastry, turning it 15 degrees each time as you stretch the dough away from you until you get that (almost) perfect round; using two chop sticks to place the right amount of filling on the disc and flatten it down; and the five (yes 5!) different ways I now know how to fold them depending on whether I want to boil or fry them or both.
And I now know up to 6 more fillings to go with the pork and Chinese chive version that MaMa makes and the China Sichuan version. They are: pork and fennel (or chinese chives); beef (or lamb) with leek (or red onion); and a vegetarian one of baby chinese cabbage and dried mushrooms.
Of course I was so excited at what felt like the first time I learned how to ride a bicycle that I forgot to take photos of the finished products. Elisa and her partner took lots though, with a VERY serious looking camera so I will update this post when she sends them to me on her return to Montreal.
Meanwhile you will have to believe me that they looked almost (well almost) like these made by Chef Ricky and photographed by my friend Solange Daini. 😉
Now learning how to make dumplings from scratch may not be the most important life skill I will acquire in the rest of my days but the pleasure of the achievement still brings a smile to my face and we couldn’t have Dermot having a nai nai who couldn’t make jiaozi could we?
To finish off the afternoon, Chun Yi showed us how to make chaomian – stir-fried noodles. Within minutes she had made up a basic flour, salt and water dough, slightly drier than the dumpling dough, rolled it thinly and cut it into thin strips. She boiled it for 2 to 3 minutes and then stir-fried it in a simple vegetarian dish of onion, green and red pepper. None of your pulling and dragging this time! No excuse for me the next time I run out of noodles so and quin jia has also promised to show me how to make her wide flat noodles next week.
Thank you Chun Yi and Hutong Cuisine for a fun afternoon that defeated jet-lag and for the great company and teaching.
See www.hutongcuisine.com – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.
PS Nai Nai moment coming up. I’m writing up this post in Clovelly, NSW, Australia where we are having a lovely time with our daughter Claire and her husband Mike. Missing our little grandson though so it was lovely to wake up to this e-card today, our wedding anniversary.
Wouldn’t that bring a smile to anyone’s face. Thank you Dermot, Shane & Shan for making our day. 🙂
Ah jiaozi… on the last day of our visit to Shan’s family in Urumqi the capital of Xinjiang Province, we listened, as Shan translated for her mother. She explained that it is traditional to serve these dumplings to family members before they depart from home, to remind them that family wraps itself around you even when you are far away.
That good lady is on my mind today as she has just journeyed thousands of miles from her home in Urumqi to be with Shane and Shan in Beijing until the birth of her (our) grandchild, fulfilling the Chinese tradition of ensuring the expectant mother is well-nourished during her pregnancy. It is an abiding part of family values in China that mothers give up their own lifestyle and their own friendships to be with their daughter at this time.
Not only did Shan’s mother serve us dumplings, she showed us how to make them and the making was also a family affair, rooted in age old traditions. Even Shan’s niece, little Xuan Xuan aged 5, was already learning how to prepare them from her mother and grandmother – her “nai nai“.
So this post is a small tribute to Shan’s Mum whose life experience is a world away from my own but with whom I have a share in a new life carrying both our genes. I hope she will be pleased that she has already taught me how to use some of her skills, on the other side of the world, before I become a nai nai myself.
Continue reading Pot-sticker dumplings
I don’t usually feel compelled to write two blog posts in one evening but a number of things came together over the last few days which have my mind whirring with the endless possibilities of Chinese cuisine.
Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure
The second episode of BBC2’s Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure with Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang plunged me back into the “feel” of the China I experienced – the passion for colour, texture and taste, the array of dishes, the attention to perfection in technique and authenticity, the extraordinary, numbing sensation of sichuan pepper on the tongue, the mothers and “nãinai” (grannies), especially the grannies, so devoted to preparing the meal for everyone else that they are usually the last to eat and often eat alone. Shan told me she never saw her beloved Granny sit down to eat with the family and yet this woman, with her bound feet, was the powerhouse of her family.
This 2nd episode of Exploring China was set in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan Province and the images of ever-expanding and developing China, while the old traditions linger, evoked my own experience of Urumqi in the far north-west in Xinjiang Province, a city which now has a population of over 4 million people.
Gok Wan’s Dim Sum
Meanwhile I set out yesterday to see if it was possible to create genuine dim sum at home using Gok Wan’s recipes from his Channel 4 Gok Cooks Chinese series. So I prepared:
- Prawn and Scallop Moneybag Dumplings
- Chilli and Salt Squid
- Pickled cucumber
- Steamed Rice Parcels with Chinese Mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaves
- Chicken and Leek Potsickers
- Pork and Prawn Potstickers
- Steamed Beef and Coriander Balls
- Steamed Pork Ribs
- Fried Rice
The short answer is that it IS possible, provided you don’t mind being on your feet from 11 am to 6 pm and enjoy the pleasure of playing around with endless small quantities of ingredients, making up tiny, delicious parcels of delights and have VERY patient friends who can tolerate their Sunday dinner coming at them in a haphazard way – but that’s what happens in China after all.
For me the real kick of yesterday was discovering the sensuous pleasure of cooking with a bamboo steamer, the speed with which pork ribs and minced beef meatballs cook and absorb flavours with no oil added, the scent of the steaming wood and the sizzle of water added to sticky dumplings, their bases already crisped, which turned out exactly like the real thing served at home by Shan’s family in Urumqi.
I loved making the prawn and money bag dumplings and tying them up with chive “lasoos”.
Once our guests arrived it was impossible to cook, serve, be hospitable and take photos at the same time but I can honestly say that the part-fried and part-steamed dumplings turned out just as I remembered them from Urumqi.
We finished the meal with chilled watermelon dipped in lime and raspberry coulis from the Exploring China cookbook – simple and palate-cleansing.
Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti
Then I woke this morning to a new recipe from Shan in my inbox. This time it was for Xinjiang spaghetti with lamb, one of my favourite recipes from Urumqi and another reminder of the common ground between Italian and Chinese cooking. As luck would have it I had 2 small lean side-loin lamb chops in the fridge and it was easy to pick up Chinese Celery and Hu Jiao Fen pepper in the Asia Market.
The white pepper seems slightly more aromatic than ordinary white pepper but I suspect the latter would be a good substitute.
The Chinese celery has a lovely crunchy texture and more flavour than ordinary Irish celery.
I notice I tend to use a bit more meat in her recipes than Shan recommends but it’s not really necessary and these stir-fry dishes are a great way of “stretching” meat for a quick family meal. I used spelt tagliatelle because that’s what was in the cupboard and it reminded me of the flat noodles in Urumqi. I would also love to try this dish with “Pici” pasta from Tuscany.
It took about 20 minutes, if even that, from the time I started slicing garlic to serving up the meal. It was filling and delicious but not heavy. Not a scrap was left at the end.
When I started out on this blog a few short weeks ago I said I had no idea where this journey would take me. Well tomorrow, on the strength of it, I get my first chance to be inside a Chinese restaurant kitchen in Ireland. This is how half-formed dreams take shape.
A word of acknowledgement
Over the weekend I visited various Twitter Foodie friends for ingredients so a special thanks to @brid_h2g for fresh produce at her Honest to Goodness Market. @pat_whelan for pork, lamb, beef and chicken from James Whelan Butchers at Avoca, @RobertsofDalkey for scallops, prawns and squid from Roberts of Dalkey and @AsiaMarketIrl for endless patience in meeting my requests for ingredients at the Asia Market, not to mention Enter the Panda @enterthepanda and @ClaireB_Oz for supporting their enthusiastic Ma in this new endeavour 🙂
If you’d like to try a hand at this dish yourself, have a look at Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti recipe. Please leave a comment too. I’d love to hear how you got on!