I was fortunate to grow up enjoying not only my mother’s well-prepared, delicious food but that of her friends who cooked as well as she did. Mrs Tsai, for example, our neighbour and my mother’s best friend, was renowned in Chinatown as a wonderful home cook and housewife; her fame spread by word of mouth through Chicago’s Chinatown. I remember going to her home and enjoying exceptional meals, especially her savoury home-made dim sum snacks. Her pork dumplings were so good that people ordered them for their own home-cooked Sunday family dinners and dim sum luncheons. In those days, dim sum was not readily available, as it is today. It was always a rather complicated affair and required time. However, Mrs Tsai had so mastered the techniques of making dim sum that she soon had a thriving Sunday sideline – dim sum takeaway. If Mrs Tsai was exceptionally busy, my mother would go next door to her house and assist her in making her famous dumplings.
I remember very well the bamboo leaves soaking in the bathtub of her apartment and, in the cluttered kitchen, tubs of minced meat and of sweet bean paste filling, and mounds of cooked rice. Although Mrs Tsai bought ready-made wonton wrappers, she did make her own rice flour dough.
My mother and Mrs Tsai would take turns at the mortar and pestle, grinding rice flour and almonds into a paste. Things could get quite hectic. I thought it all a big treat because my task, as I saw it, was to stay out of the way and to nibble on any titbits I was offered.
My favourite was Mrs Tsai’s steamed pork dumplings, filled with sweet, crisp water chestnuts. It was not difficult to see why her dumplings were in such demand.
You can buy the canned Sichuan preserved vegetables from Chinese grocers or supermarkets.
Soak the mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes. Drain them and squeeze out the excess liquid. Remove and discard the stems, and finely chop the mushroom caps.
Put the chopped mushrooms and the rest of the filling ingredients into a large bowl and mix them well.
Place a portion of filling on each wonton skin. Bring up the sides and press them around the filling mixture.
Tap the dumpling on the bottom to make a flat base. The top should be wide open, exposing the meat filling.
Set up a steamer, or put a rack inside a wok or large, deep pot. Pour in about
Cover the pot tightly, turn the heat to low and steam gently for about 20 minutes. You may have to do this in several batches. Serve the dumplings hot. Keep the first batch warm by covering them with foil and placing them in a warm but switched off oven until all the dumplings are ready to serve at once.
© 1998 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.