By Cathy Erway
My brother recently celebrated his 30th birthday. And just like his 29th and 28th, he celebrated with a dumpling party in his apartment. Friends showed up, having been told to bring any type of dumpling filling of their own, and after folding lessons and several rounds of pan-frying the party enjoyed “lasagna dumplings,” kielbasa and sauerkraut dumplings, and cream cheese, salmon and scallion dumplings, among other less-traditional varieties. We don’t think this is very strange at all: We toss out the books and invite any and all kinds of food combinations and cuisines inside a typical Chinese potsticker (guotie or jiaozi).
For us, there are no boundaries of taste when we’re making one of our favorite foods. We certainly didn’t inherit this inclination for unheard-of dumpling fillings from our Chinese mom, whose response to the latest creations was that they sounded “weird.” But I distinctly remember her squeezing out thawed, frozen spinach to chop into her pork dumpling filling, when she didn’t have the chance to get Napa cabbage from the Asian store. Nice one, mom. Now that I know to substitute with what’s available, I’ll make available everything.
Last summer I taught a cooking class at an organic farm and made veggie dumplings with shredded zucchini, tarragon and Feta to serve with aioli. On New Year’s Eve, I held a dumpling party debuting the “cheeseburger” dumpling. Some experiments fall flat, like one guest’s too-soupy lentil filling. Others shine, like the leftover barbecued pulled pork someone once brought. At one of the first of my brother’s dumpling parties, a guest nonchalantly filled her dumpling skins with fresh apples and brown sugar, and brought caramel sauce to dip the finished, crispy-bottomed things in. It was a revelation–dessert dumplings! I’ve repeated it many times, and with other fruits like pears.
To get the most varied and unexpected results, it’s important to do this with a big group of people. Dumpling-making parties are actually a beloved tradition in China; they make sense because filling and cooking all those dumplings is such a tedious and lonely task for one person (much more so if rolling out the skins from scratch, a preference I’ve adopted in recent years). At a party, a natural assembly line is formed, with some guests preferring to fill and fold, others, more interested in chopping or frying. The workload is buffered by conversation and lively instruction, and at our parties, there are always new dumpling skin crimping techniques invented by novices, or stodgy nonconformists. I love seeing how different they all appear on the pan.
There are hallmarks of good potsticker-making that I strongly advise: the skin should be thin, and the dumpling should be flat-bottomed so as to get the most surface area against the pan for a good crisp.
But when it comes to fillings, I’ll tell anyone to go crazy with it. Why waste life being a purist when there are so many flavors to tuck inside a sheet of fresh noodle?