A warm bowl of hearty soup can soothe any ache or ailment, but a plate of delicious dumplings will surely cure it. Almost every culture has its version of this widely popular comfort food, whether as a steamed ball of dough filled with fish or a fried chunk of flour in a spicy stew. I’ve never met a child or a senior who could resist the charm of dumplings, and I for one list it as one of my all time favorite foods. They can be made with flour, potatoes, bread or matzoh and shaped into balls, ears, torpedos, cockscomb or triangles. Drizzle them with soy sauce, douse them in gravy, serve them with ice cream or plop them in a soup. Stuff it, squash it, chew it or stretch it but always take your time to savor it. Boiled, pan fried, steamed, baked, deep fried or simmered- whatever way you choose to honor these tasty little treasures, they will reward you with great satisfaction and double happiness.
My palate has enjoyed many dumplings, from classic Italian gnocchi with brown butter sage to Hungarian galuskas made with egg and flour, Polish pierogis nestled under a hefty serving of sour cream and Tibetan goat meat momos with chili sauce. When that sudden and frequent yearning for dumplings hits me, I seek comfort in Korean mandu guk (dumpling soup), Japanese gyoza or Chinese jiaozi. Asian dumplings are frequently filled with minced pork or shrimp and a combination of Chinese cabbage, chives, spring onions, and garlic all neatly wrapped up in a thin skin. Variations on the protein filling may include beef, chicken, crab meat, scallops, fish, shark fin and even conch, while vegetables can feature anything in season- I’ve sampled delectable dumplings with tomato, celery, cabbage, eggplant, yellow chives, mushrooms and white gourd. Pan fried gyozas are the ultimate complement to a bowl of ramen, and xiao long bao soup dumplings, shiu mai and shrimp har gow sure hit the spot at dim sum. Whatever type of dumpling I eat, it makes me breathe a long sigh of relief and takes me to a place of comfort and peace.
No doubt we all have fond childhood memories of dumplings, whether of a monthly tradition of Sunday morning dim sum, delectable accompaniments to dinner at home or assembly line production with relatives for special festivities and family reunions. Mine take me back to a family ritual where my mother would make pork dumplings in the kitchen every week as my brother and I jump around in the kitchen with joy and anticipation, unable to contain our excitement for the juicy little packages that would titillate our mouths. She would wrap them with love, one by one, with those nimble and tireless fingers that have prepared countless delicious meals for us every day of our lives. The click-click-click of the gas burner being turned on, the momentary silence as we stand around waiting for the pan to heat up, the dramatic sizzle of dumplings searing in the hot oil. A brief crescendo of spitting oil and water sounds followed by a muffled simmer when the lid goes on would announce the commencement of the final step of flash steaming the dumplings, and my brother and I would obediently take our seats at the table with chopsticks in hand. My happiest childhood memories revolve around my mother’s fried dumplings, and I’m fortunate to be able to relive that experience every year when I visit my family in Japan.
Nothing will ever hit the spot for me quite like mama’s gyoza, but I’m blessed to live in a cosmopolitan city where I can get other types of Asian dumplings for a reasonable price- meaty mandu in all corners of Koreatown, Japanese gyoza in ramen and izakaya restaurants in Gardena (especially the bite-sized hitokuchi gyoza at Shin-sen-gumi Hakata Ramen), and Chinese dumplings in every section of San Gabriel Valley. I’m a fan of the texturally pleasant sea cucumber dumplings at Dumpling 10053 in El Monte, the thick chewy skin of the boiled pork dumplings at the unassuming hole-in-the-wall Dumpling Master, and the flavorful celery wontons at Dean Sin World. And what about xiao long bao, those perfect little bundles of juicy pork with savory soup that squirt its warm juices onto your tongue in each heavenly bite? Many discerning gourmands in LA will gladly jump into a never-ending argument about where you can get the best XLB: the delicate ones at Mei Long Village, the less juicier ones at Southern Mini Town, the chewy ones at J&J or the world famous and expensive ones at Din Tai Fung. We may not all agree on our favorite Shanghai soup dumplings, but we can surely agree that we’re lucky to have enough options to be able to have this debate.
My personal favorite to get all of the above in one sitting is Dean Sin World, a tiny storefront on Garfield Avenue run by Chinese ladies who will treat you with the same love and care that they give their own children. There are only 4 small tables here and no attitude. The pork XLB are great here, as are the shrimp wontons that come in a warm broth with seaweed and scallions, the amazing texture of their egg noodles with cubed pork and bamboo shoots, the pork leek dumplings and my personal favorite, the celery wontons. By no means are the XLB or the dumplings here a perfect 10- the thin skin of their XLB breaks during the steaming process, resulting in some liquidless dumplings- but I frequently come here alone for a quick bite and an experience of nostalgia. The ladies don’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandarin, but we communicate through intention and hand gestures and I nonetheless feel at ease. They ask me how I’m doing with a gentle pat on the back and they smile with their kind eyes when they see that I’m full and content. Since dumplings remind me of my mother, this place allows me to get a little closer to that warm feeling. Taking home their frozen dumplings and enjoying these plump jewels in my kitchen allows me to relive that feeling of comfort and love at any time of the day.
Making dumplings at home is a fun event filled with joy and excitement from beginning to end. Many will use store-bought dumpling skins to cut preparation time, but the reward in making handmade skin from scratch is too great to pass up the labor intensive process. Its actually quite simple, using a blend of hakurikiko (bread flour) and kyourikiko (low protein weak flour) with distilled water, and letting it rest after kneading it into a doughy ball.
I always use Kurobuta ground pork for my gyoza with a blend of chopped nira chives, grated ginger juice, grated garlic, chopped white negi scallions, soy sauce and Shao Hsing rice wine as my kakushi aji (hidden flavor/secret ingredient). Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty by vigorously yet lovingly mixing the filling to create a smooth blend.
Roll the pliable pieces of dough into round discs and wrap them up with a spoonful of pork filling. There are many ways of wrapping the dumplings, but I grew up learning the cockscomb technique, neatly folding one side of the skin into angled layers that splay out across a semi circle.
I love dipping fried gyoza into soy sauce, rice vinegar and la-yu chile oil, but for boiled dumpings and xiao long bao I prefer tart black vinegar with thinly sliced ginger. Homemade dumpling skins tend to have a thicker chewier texture which is best enjoyed boiled or steamed. A bounty of flavorful pork fat and meat juices come pouring out with each bite into these dense homemade bundles of delight. I always set the table with plates, dipping bowls and chopsticks, but I never make it past the kitchen counter next to the warm stove where I eat the dumplings on a small stool where it feels more intimate and comfortable.
My homemade dumplings really hit the spot, but nothing will ever surpass my mother’s dumplings for me. Even if I were to make it exactly the same way, there’s something unique about a mother’s touch that gives it that extra dose of tastiness. Hopefully in the future, my children will look to my dumplings with the same reverence and adoration, and their children to theirs. Filled with joy, wrapped with care, prepared with love and savored with happiness- is there anything better than dumplings?
Shin-sen-gumi: 2015 W. Redondo Beach Blvd C, Gardena, CA 90247 (310) 329-1335
Dean Sin World: 306 N Garfield Ave #2, Monterey Park, CA 91754 (626) 571-0636
Din Tai Fung: 1108 South Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91007 (626) 574-7068
Dumpling 10053: 10053 Valley Blvd #2, El Monte, CA 91731 (626) 350-0188
Mei Long Village: 301 W. Valley Blvd #112, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626) 284-4769
Southern Mini Town: 833 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626) 289-6578
J&J/Jin Jian: 301 W Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626) 308-9238
Dumpling Master: 2124 S Hacienda Blvd, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745 (626) 369-3788
Random trivia: Did you know that yellow chives are the same plant as garlic chives, but shielded from direct sunlight which prevents them from producing chlorophyll and turning green?