Doing the dumplings: a holiday tradition

Chinese New Year gets a delicious start

January 21, 2004|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tonight, MacDuff Stewart will race the clock, mincing and chopping as she prepares her traditional Chinese New Year's dumplings.

What's the rush?

An ancient Chinese custom that forbids touching sharp objects on New Year's Day. It's bad luck. So if friends want to enjoy her savory dumplings tomorrow when the holiday kicks off, she'd better get chopping.

Stewart, 25, a Michigan native with a passion for all things Asian, has been celebrating the Chinese New Year since she was in college.

Making the dumplings in her brother's West Baltimore home where she lives will be a group effort. Her boyfriend, Scott Eney, 28, and brother, Dylan Stewart, 32, will provide extra hands. New Year's Eve is a time for the family.

"I love making these dumplings because you create your own fillings, then sit around the table and make food together. Everyone feels some kind of ownership," she said.

The lunar new year tomorrow, ushering in the Year of the Monkey, is celebrated by a number of Asian countries, each with its own food and traditions. In China the holiday is marked by 15 days of festivities that include fireworks, red envelopes with money for the children, visiting friends and dragon dances.

But no traditional feast would be complete without plates of steaming Chinese dumplings symbolizing wealth.

Getting a head start on the holiday, Stewart and Eney recently practiced their dumpling-making skills with an array of fillings - shrimp with bok choy (Chinese cabbage), ginger, rice-wine vinegar and cilantro; pork with soy sauce and spring onion; tofu with mushroom and basil; and cabbage, cilantro, carrot and garlic.

"The beauty of these dumplings is that you can put any filling in them," said Stewart, who works at A Cook's Table in Baltimore and assists with cooking classes there.

Bowls brimming with the aromatic mixtures and an open packet of circular dumpling wrappers dominate the dining-room table. The process is simple: Spoon the filling on a dough round, fold it over and pinch to seal. Dumplings can be frozen, refrigerated or boiled in water.

Stewart learned to make the regional specialties from an authentic source. Working on an independent research project abroad during her junior year of college, she met a Chinese family who lived at a guesthouse in the small town of Xiahe.

The family introduced her to her first Chinese New Year and the treasured art of preparing and cooking dumplings.

"Here I was a complete and utter stranger in this house, and they were so warm and welcoming," Stewart said. "We sat up all night and made dumplings. That's the custom ... to sit up really late and make them with your family."

The celebratory dumplings - called potstickers in America - are sold in China for meals throughout the day. We usually fry them here. In China, they are boiled and are considered street food.

"You cannot throw a stone in China without hitting a dumpling," said Stewart, who speaks Chinese and has visited the country several times since she wrapped up her school paper, "Buddhist Sacred Mountains in China."

Stewart selects fresh produce and other ingredients for her dumplings and dipping sauces from the Han Ah Reum Asian Market in Catonsville. The store is stocked for Chinese New Year with frozen moon cakes, red bean sweet buns, salted duck eggs, clementines and gift boxes of black sesame cereal.

Manager Kevin Park said about half his customers are Chinese, and the store is bustling this time of year. Maryland's total Chinese population is 49,579, with 2,395 living in Baltimore City, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

Stewart and her traditional easy-to-make dumplings demonstrate that East and West can meet and blend perfectly.

"They're very easy to make," she said. "I think it's a good way to start out with Asian food instead of running out and buying a wok. This is legitimate Chinese food and a fun activity."

As for the dipping sauce, Stewart's favorite is a snap to make. Combine one part soy sauce or tamari with one part rice-wine vinegar and a dab of chile paste. Stir - preferably with chopsticks -and start dunking your dumplings. Hoisin and duck sauces - while not traditional - also can be used as a sauce.

And speaking of chopsticks, when Stewart was 6, her mother got a wok and all the essentials to introduce the family to Chinese cuisine. She made chicken and cashews a little too often for her daughter's liking.

Stewart vividly remembers her father's saying at the time, "One day you will go on a date, and you will wow some guy with your ability to use chopsticks."

Years later, she called home from China to say, "Thanks, Dad."

Jiaozi (Chinese Dumplings)

Dumplings can be made with various fillings. Here's a basic dumpling recipe with variations listed below. Serve with a dipping sauce (recipe below).

Makes 14 to 18 dumplings

dumpling wrappers (see note)

PORK FILLING:

1/2 pound ground pork

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons brandy or sherry

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon rosemary, crushed

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