Food and Culture: Dumplings

Editor’s Note: The Suncoast Post loves it when young people send us articles to put on our online magazine. Nathan Widjaja loves to cook and sent us this article on food and culture that we hope you’ll enjoy, with a great new recipe to try.

From a young age, we are all exposed to things that shape us into who we become. Whether it be the music we listen to or the language that is spoken to us, it is true that the things we are introduced to throughout our childhood, create our identity. Perhaps the most influential thing that we are introduced to at a young age is the food we eat.

The foods that we eat as infants do far more than shape our food preferences. The flavors and foods that we are exposed to also shape our cultural identity and progress heritage. A recent study from the University College in London supports this fact, and even suggests that the vice versa is also true. That is, our personal identity, including culture and ethnicity, affect our food selections and the food choices that we make.

Cultural influences

I realize that my specific cultural influences — both of my parents were born in Indonesia, but I grew up with significant Chinese influence (inherited from my grandparents on both sides) — translated significantly into the savory, mouthwatering Indonesian-Chinese food that I grew up eating. Like millions of other Asian-Americans across the country, I have many fond memories of folding dumplings and spring rolls with friends and family.

We sit for hours on end talking and catching up while folding these delicious bundles of food. With these memories of food and family in mind, I have outlined an easy, beginner-friendly (but definitely still delicious) dumpling recipe below.

Part One: The Wrapper

The wrapper is probably the most overlooked part of the dumpling-making process. Indeed, it is an important step, as the wrapper needs to be tender and soft, yet be able to hold in the filling while cooking. You can make your own dough, or if you’re trying to cut down on work, buy a pack from an ethnic supermarket. Don’t be ashamed to use store-bought wrappers- they are easier to work with when first starting out, and they still result in a great finished product.

Ingredients (Homemade dough)

  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour (10 ounces)
  • ¾ cup warm water (6 ounces)

Mix the warm water gradually into the 2 cups of flour. As a shaggy dough begins to form, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for approximately 10 minutes. Add bench flour as needed. At this point, the dough should quickly spring back when touched. Let the dough rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or refrigerate it overnight. After resting, the dough should sink when touched and be very supple. That’s all there is to it. This two-ingredient dough will become the vessel to hold the delicious filling that you make!

I based this dough recipe off of one that I found online, so click here if you need a more detailed description of how to make homemade dumpling dough.

Part Two: The Filling

Dumplings are filled with quite literally anything but the kitchen sink. I’ve seen dumplings filled with all sorts of meat, a mix of meat and seafood, or even purely vegetables. Keeping this in mind, I have created a “base” recipe that could be added to/altered to personal preferences.

Ingredients (Pork filling)

  • 1 pound of ground pork (approximately 450 grams)
  • ½ cup chopped mushrooms (100g)
  • ⅓ cup minced garlic (25g)
  • 3 tsp minced ginger (approximately 15 grams)
  • 1 medium shredded carrot
  • ⅓ cup chopped green onions (25g)
  • Assorted seasonings/sauces (see graphic)

You can see that I added shrimp in this particular batch-the pork/shrimp combo is delicious if you enjoy a little bit of seafood-y flavor! 🙂

First prep the ingredients, making sure that everything is diced well (you don’t want large chunks of anything). The goal is to end up with a well-incorporated homogeneous mixture. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon, or, my favorite utensil– your hands. Don’t be afraid to get a little messy to properly incorporate all the ingredients. Then, add in your seasonings

Note that I purposefully did not write measurements for the seasonings– play around with the sweet, salty, and bitter notes of each seasoning. Play around with different proportions of each taste sensations. Sesame oil for fragrance, oyster sauce for savory notes, Chinese Five Spice for complexity, etc. After seasoning, you should be able to hold your nose up to your filling and be hit with a very strong, fragrant, savory smell. Once you are confident with your seasoning and filling, all that’s left to do is wrap and cook them up!

Part Three: Folding and Cooking Techniques

Folding these dumplings is probably the most technically difficult part of the recipe. Despite my decade of experience folding dumplings, I still struggle with pleating and folding them. My older relatives’ skill in this particular step is proof it takes a lifetime of experience to truly master the art of folding dumplings! So, don’t get frustrated if your dumplings don’t look absolutely aesthetically stunning your first time.

The most important thing to remember when folding is to make sure that they are fully sealed so they do not fall apart during the cooking process. There are many guides online to demonstrate different ways to fold dumplings… this one here is an excellent resource to use!

As for how to cook them, I find that a combination of boiling/frying works best. Simply boil them in simmering water, being careful to not puncture the dumplings’ skin (note: If you want solely boiled dumplings, you can stop here). To fry, heat a skillet at medium heat with some neutral oil. Add the dumplings straight from the water and fry until golden brown. Top with sesame oil and finely sliced green onions and enjoy! There you have it– delicious dumplings full of explosive and diverse flavors!

Closing Remarks

As I mentioned previously, this recipe should simply be used as a guide for your own culinary journey. I believe that cooking is all about experimentation, so adding ingredients, changing seasoning proportions, and altering cooking techniques is not only acceptable, but highly encouraged.

In a time where the world desperately needs comfort, I think that we can find great comfort in making and eating food. Making these dumplings to write this article gave me the comfort that I needed, and I sincerely hope that it does the same for you. Moreover, with COVID-19 uncovering racial issues across the globe (read here) and deep divisions present in our society, I believe even a simple recipe like this one can play a part in combating prejudice and increasing much-needed cultural awareness. After all, perhaps food can be something that unites us if nothing else, and what better food than these delicious dumplings, rich in both flavor and culture.

I hope you found my very first article informative and enjoyable. I would like to give a HUGE thank you to my friend, Will Lok, for creating the incredible graphics to illustrate the recipe. I’d love to hear from you, so if you have any questions/comments feel free to email me at nathan.widjaja@gmail.com or reach out on Instagram @foodbynathan.

About the Author

Nathan Widjaja is a rising sophomore at Pine View School. He is currently in the process of beginning his own food business venture, Veritas Food Company. At school, Nathan participates in various clubs, including Science Olympiad and Speech and Debate. Besides cooking and baking, he enjoys playing music both inside and outside of school.

Photo credit Will Lok.

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2020-07-06