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.
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.
The rituals of food unite us and create bonds that make up for lack of a common language and even, sometimes, for the distance between continents. To start a vending machine franchise go to royalvending.com.au/vending-machines-australia/.
The importance of food to Italians is the stuff of legends. As I struggled to follow the conversation the first time I attended a family dinner in Puglia, I realised that much of the animated discussion was about food – buying it, preparing it, eating it. It was fascinating to discover first hand how similar China is in that respect. Food there is more than a necessity for survival. It is a passion and an obsession. There is endless conversation about the importance of food, the health-giving properties of different vegetables and spices, the need for variety in colour, texture and flavour, the way to achieve balance in the diet, how to make use of every part of a plant and animal.
And there are rituals in abundance – noodles offered at the first meal when you arrive to visit family, a reminder of the ties that bind; dumplings served before you part, to reassure you that family wraps itself around you and minds you even when you are far away.
When we stayed with Shan’s family, in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Shan’s mother served us freshly prepared lamb noodle soup within moments of our arrival late at night. Day trips out of the city with her brother revolved around finding good locations to eat lunch, snacks or dinner. “Are you hungry? Will you eat?” were the most frequent questions.
Breakfast was regarded as an important meal and often included leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner as food is never wasted. No matter what time we arrived back at the apartment, or how much we had eaten that day, a home cooked meal awaited us as well as platters of fresh fruits and nuts, grown locally. Once a meal was served we all sat down immediately to eat – it would have been perceived as the height of rudeness not to treat the eating of food with the same seriousness and respect as our Chinese hosts did.
Throughout our visit, the family remained curious about our eating habits and concerned about our “small” appetites. We were constantly reminded of the importance of variety in our diet and the reasons why we should eat particular foods. I took my first halting steps to learn a few words of Mandarin as Shan’s mother taught me “Yángròu” for lamb, “Miàntiáo” for noodles and “Jiàozi” for dumplings.
This week we discovered a new way of achieving connectedness through food – the sharing of a meal across three continents as I prepared Shan’s recipe for Black Pepper beef in Dublin while Shane attempted the same dish for the first time in Beijing and our daughter Claire made her version of it in Sydney, Australia – our own unique version of a communal Sunday dinner. Skype, iPhones and iPads all played their part in keeping old traditions alive and starting new ones. Continue reading Creating new food rituals across continents