One of the pleasures of my last year in Taipei was living around the corner from a small Moslem restaurant, where in keeping with the dietary restrictions of the Chinese Moslems no pork was served. I went there regularly with Po-Fu, the family patriarch, who judged the place to have the best pan-fried dumplings in the city and in testimony to his feelings would down two dozen of them at a sitting. While he munched, I would watch the cook, a broad-faced Mongolian who wore an irrepressible grin and an oily knit cap whatever the weather and who for some reason chose to fry his dumplings out on the curb over a brazier, the smells undoubtedly a lure for prospective customers.
Chop the cabbage finely, sprinkle with ½ teaspoon kosher salt, and toss well to combine. Let stand 5 minutes, drain, then squeeze firmly between your palms or wring out in cheesecloth to remove excess moisture.
Scatter the cabbage in a large bowl, add the beef or lamb, and sprinkle the remaining filling ingredients on top. Stir briskly in one direction until well blended, with chopsticks or a fork, then throw the mixture lightly against the inside of the bowl 5 or 6 times to compact it. For best flavor, seal the mixture airtight with a piece of plastic film pressed directly on the surface and let stand 30 minutes at room temperature or several hours to overnight in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before using.
Follow the instructions; however, cut out 3-inch circles for the wrappers and use only 2 teaspoons filling per wrapper. Once shaped, the dumplings may be refrigerated or frozen as described. Pan-fry frozen dumplings when they are only partially thawed and the dough is still firm, and begin cooking at a somewhat lower heat so they thaw completely in the pan. Refrigerated dumplings should be cooked directly from the refrigerator.
For a full recipe, you will need to fry the dumplings in two batches, using a heavy 12-inch skillet, preferably made of cast iron, with a tight-fitting cover. (Or, if you have two pans and two cooks, you can fry them all at once.)
About 20 minutes before serving, mix the ingredients for the dipping sauce, taste and adjust to your liking, then place in small dip dishes or saucers alongside each place setting. Or, for hors d’oeuvre service, mix several batches in a small bowl. Put two round serving platters in a low oven to warm. Have the dumplings, the oil, the stock mixture, and the lid all within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat the skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add enough oil to coat the bottom with a scant ¼ inch oil, swirl the skillet to glaze it an inch up the sides, then adjust the skillet on the burner so that the oil is evenly deep. Reduce the heat to medium. When the oil is hot enough to foam a pinch of dry flour, pick up the dumplings by their tops and quickly arrange them smooth side down in the pan. Make concentric rings starting from the outside of the pan and working into the center, putting the dumplings directly next to and hugging one another. (The crowding will cause the dumplings to stick together in a pretty spiral when they are turned out onto the platter, which is the traditional presentation.) As you arrange the dumplings, adjust the heat so they sizzle mildly.
Once the dumplings are in place, raise the heat slightly to bring them to a merry sizzle and brown the bottoms. Check frequently, lifting them carefully with a spatula, and when the bottoms are evenly browned give the stock mixture a stir, and add enough to come halfway up the side of the dumplings. Expect the liquid to hiss loudly as soon as it is added.
Adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, and cover the pot. (These are the moments when the wrappers and filling will cook through and absorb the flavor of the stock.) After about 7 minutes, lift the lid to peek inside the pot, and when the stock is almost all absorbed remove the lid. Lift one dumpling with a spatula and check the bottom. If it is not crisp enough to “clink” against a fingernail, then continue to cook for a minute or so more. If there is not sufficient oil left after the steaming to crisp them, add a bit more oil from the side of the pan and swirl to distribute it under the dumplings.
When the bottoms are crisp, turn off the heat, move the pan off the burner, and loosen the bottoms of the dumplings with the spatula. Invert them onto the serving platter, browned bottoms up. If you have done the job well, they will cling in a spiral.
As soon as you have turned the dumplings out of the pan (and neatened them up if they did not emerge exactly as planned), rush them to the table. Part of the traditional fun is for the guests to pull them apart with their chopsticks, then, the eating begins: Pick a dumpling up with the help of chopsticks and a small Chinese porcelain spoon (a metal soup spoon will do, though it gets too hot to be perfect). Pick the dumpling up out of the spoon long enough to dunk its bottom in the dip, then return it to the spoon. Raise the spoon almost to your chin, use the chopsticks to complete the journey of the dumpling to your mouth, then after you have bitten off a neat half (carefully, so the steam and hot juices don’t bum you), deposit the remaining half in the spoon until you are ready for the next bite.
Dumpling eating is designed to be fun and informal, so feel free to lose a dumpling here and there, splatter a bit of the dipping sauce if you have not perfected the art of dunking, and demand more dumplings in the spirit of a good party.
Cook only as many dumplings as will be eaten (which is usually more than you anticipate if you have assembled the appropriate audience). Cold pot stickers are beyond rewarming or at least beyond my taste.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.