2018-02-01 / Dishing

All Rolled Up

Making dumplings for an auspicious (and delicious!) Chinese New Year.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Yi Zhou has been making dumplings since 7 a.m.

By the time I arrive two hours later, the first batch of “dumpling skins” are ready to be flattened, rolled, filled and boiled.

I am greeted with a cup of warm Long-jing tea, a gift from Zhou’s mother-in-law when she visited from China. On the table is a cutting board, also from China, and a bowl of homemade chili oil, the killer component in Zhou’s dumpling sauce and the first of many signs that I was incredibly fortunate to get this assignment.

In October 2015, Zhou, her husband Fei Li and their daughter Ruby moved here from the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi. That makes this February the third Chinese New Year they have spent in State College.

“There will be seven days off all over the country,” she says of celebrations in China, “so that members can go back to the parents’ home wherever they are.”

Food traditions vary by family and region; Zhou’s center around homemade dumplings.  While she has made dumplings for Americans before, today is her first time giving a lesson.

Using a substantial Chinese vegetable cleaver, Zhou makes short work of a bag of chives, turning the grass-like herbs into vegetable confetti. She massages the chives into a pound of ground pork, adding a tablespoon of a 13-ingredient spice mix that includes cinnamon and star anise.

Picking up the dough that was made early this morning, she rolls it in her hands until it resembles an eel and cuts it in half. She cuts each half into 1⁄2-inch rounds, turning the tube of dough before each slice to ensure uniform pieces. After each rotation, she nods — a small, but instinctive movement that seems necessary to pass an internal inspection process. Slice, rotate, nod. Eventually the board is covered in two dozen dumpling “skins” that look like meringue cookies.

And then the real fun begins.

“Your turn,” she calls to her husband.  

Li, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State, emerges from his office, and 5-year-old Ruby, who has dressed in a princess dress and light-up plastic heels for her guest, drops her Rainbow Loom. What happens next is something that has happened in this dining room probably 20 times before and countless times in dining rooms back in their hometown. Working like a finely tuned machine, the father and daughter pinch and flatten each skin. They are making dumpling skins, but they could be rolling playdough. While I’m here for the end result, for this family it’s about the process.

As her husband and daughter work, Zhou narrates. This is the most crucial step in the process, she says. The middle of the skin, which will hold the filling, is slightly thicker than the outside. Make the skins too thin and the dumplings will split in the water; make them too thick and they will be undercooked.

After each skin is rolled out, Li returns to his computer and Zhou takes over, using chopsticks to add a mound of filling to the middle of each skin. “The more filling, the more delicious.”

But you need to button up that filling. When I attempt to tuck in my own dumpling, like an ill-fitting shirt, the contents won’t stay put.

It looks deceptively easy in Zhou’s nimble hands. In impressive, meticulous fashion, she folds the sides together making a mini burrito, then crimps the ends until it looks like a dumpling.

“That was 30 seconds per dumpling,” I report.

“I can make it faster,” she says matter of factly, explaining she was slowing down for my benefit.

While Zhou isn’t aiming for any records — she’ll leave that to the YouTube stars who can roll 10 skins at once — her speed is born of hours of practice. And lately she’s had plenty of time to hone her skills. A hospital pharmacist in Northern China, she sacrificed her career for her family when they moved to State College. Cooking fills the time and helps with homesickness.

It’s also necessary. “When we go to American restaurants, all the food has cheese inside, except steak,” she reports. “That’s the only food I found without cheese.”

Unlike my own daughter, Ruby isn’t requesting macaroni and cheese for lunch. When I asked about her favorite part of making dumplings, she smiles and says, “Eating them.”

That afternoon, I happily leave with a dozen dumplings, lamenting the fact that I didn’t meet Zhou earlier. I’d love to cook with her again before she and her family return to China in May.

That afternoon Zhou made another batch of dumplings with the dough she prepared while I was there. Ruby devoured 15 for lunch. •SCM

Dumpling Sauce for Two
3 Tbsp. Chinese black vinegar, aged vinegar that’s typically made from rice
1 Tbsp. chili oil (see note)
2 cloves garlic
Smash garlic, then mix with black vinegar and chili oil.
Divide evenly and pour into small bowls for dipping.

Note: To make your own chili oil, buy dried chili pepper from a traditional Asian market. (Zhou says you can get some at East Asian Market on Blue Course Drive.) Don’t use the Italian-style crushed red pepper flakes found in American groceries.

Pour 6 Tbsp. hot vegetable oil onto 3 Tbsp. dried chili pepper. Stir the pepper with a dry spoon to make sure all the pepper is immersed in the hot oil.

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