Three days into the Year of the Rabbit—that’s 4709 on the Chinese calendar—and all across Asia, fireworks are blossoming, incense is swirling, and bunny ears are the lunar new year headgear of choice.
To celebrate the dawn of what’s promised to be a peaceful, prosperous year in which the arts will flourish—rabbits are said to be cool, calm and cultivated (naturally this is why the Middle East is in the throes of revolution)—we’ve lit a few red lanterns and are, of course, pondering what to eat.
Enticing local options include Braised Louisiana Rabbit with High Rock Farm Chestnuts, Edward’s Ham and Ginger at The Lantern, our favorite Asian fusion haunt, while L.A. Burdick’s cute dark chocolate bunnies with tangerine ganache are even now wending their way to our table.
But tonight we’re having Zhu Li’s delicious Pork Dumplings, made by yours truly, following a 17–year-old recipe scribbled on tattered yellow legal paper.
Zhu Li came to work for us shortly after we moved to Texas from New York. Angus could barely walk, Serendipity was furious about leaving her friends and new school behind—and I was drowning in self-pity (how could I live without Balducci’s $14/pound strawberries?), struggling to tame a house suddenly infested with fleas (a parting gift from the previous tenant’s dog), desperate for five minutes of escape.
And then a tall, willowy, solemn Chinese woman appeared on our doorstep. A “telecommunications engineer” and member in good standing of the People’s Revolutionary Party, Zhu Li was spending a year in the capitalist mecca of Dallas with her husband, a grad student working on a degree in mining engineering. The Chinese government paid for it all, but exacted a price: To ensure their return, they had to leave their baby daughter with Zhu Li’s mother in Beijing. She needed something to do, I needed help, so we agreed to give it a try.
It was culture shock all the way around. After Serendipity’s 7th birthday party at The Doll House Museum—memorable for the frou-frou party dresses all the girls wore, piles of presents (the rule was that even $15.99 Barbies had to be wrapped in yards of pink ribbon and shiny paper), and a clown-magician who failed dismally to pull the requisite dove from his sleeve—Zhu Li narrowed her eyes and muttered, “American children are very, very lucky.”
Instead of calling Angus by name, she addressed him as “boy.” (It did not help when she caught chicken pox from him.) Serendipity persuaded her that it was OK to serve multiple bowls of mint chocolate chip ice cream when I was away. She rode a bicycle to our house every morning through terrifying rush hour traffic. Slowly, though, there were little changes. One day she appeared in a sparkly Dallas-style T-shirt. Soon after she announced that she had bought a television for their modest apartment. But she never smiled.
One spring morning, we decided to make dumplings. Zhu Li arrived at our house with Chinese chives and other vegetables, I supplied ground pork, wonton wrappers and seasonings. I took notes as she ferociously beat egg whites into the pork, using chopsticks, until it was smooth and almost creamy. She chopped half a head of Napa cabbage very fine, squeezing the juice out with her hands, and stirred it into the pork with along with minced chives and scallions. I mixed in soy sauce and sesame oil. And then she showed me how to put a spoonful of the mixture on a wonton wrapper, moisten the edge with water and seal it tight, crimping the edge until it was as ruffled as the dresses at the infamous birthday party.
I was fascinated by the way she cooked the dumplings. No clock was necessary. She simply poured them into a big pot of boiling water, returned it to a boil, and added cold water to slow the cooking. She repeated the process twice more, each time bringing them back to the boil. The dumpling I tasted was succulent and juicy, better than any I’d ever tasted in New York. At dinner that night everyone ate hungrily. We felt, I think, as if we were settling in to our new life.
The next day Zhu Li said: “I tell my husband I make dumplings for you.” She paused. “And?” I prompted. “He said…‘Good.’” And she smiled an enormous smile.
I often think of Zhu Li and wonder about her return to Beijing. I imagine a joyous reunion with her daughter, a child who by then probably didn’t know her. I imagine that daughter as a young woman—and I wonder if, like her mother, she makes dumplings, perhaps for her own child.
Zhu Li’s Homemade Pork Dumplings with Chinese Chives and White Pepper
The white pepper is the only change I made to Zhu Li’s recipe. It has a mildly hot, slightly musky flavor, that contrasts nicely with the rich pork. Otherwise the dumplings are exactly as she made them for us that spring morning.
Zhu Li mixed simple dipping sauce of soy sauce and sesame oil, which I prefer. But if you like, you could add a bit of grated garlic or ginger.
Makes approximately 50 to 60 dumplings
Ingredients for the dumplings:
2 packages round wonton wrappers (Usually there are 48 to a package, but you will need a few more.)
1 pound ground pork
½ cup water
2 egg whites
2 cups finely chopped Chinese or Napa cabbage
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, green tops only
1/3 cup finely chopped Chinese or other chives
¼ cup vegetable oil (I use canola)
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon finely ground white pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
For the dipping sauce:
6 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
½ teaspoon grated ginger or garlic (optional)
Method for the dumplings:
1. Using chopsticks, mix the pork with the ½ cup water, adding the water little by little, beating the pork hard until it looks very smooth. Add the egg whites and beat well to incorporate them into the mixture. The pork should look smooth and almost creamy.
2. Squeeze the cabbage in your hands until the juice runs out. (Or you can put the cabbage in a clean dish towel and squeeze tightly until the juice has been extracted.) Mix the cabbage with the chopped scallions and chives, and add to the pork, mixing well with your hands.
3. Add the canola oil, sesame oil, salt, white pepper and soy sauce to the pork and mix well until the seasonings have been thoroughly incorporated. Set aside.
4. To make the dumplings, you will need a cutting board and a small dish of cold water. Lay one wonton wrapper flat on the board. Place one small spoonful of the pork mixture on upper half of the wrapper. Dip your forefinger into the water and moisten the edge of the wrapper. Fold it over the mixture and firmly press the two edges together to seal them. Then dip your finger in the water again, lightly moisten the rounded edge of the wrapper, and make little folds to crimp it. Each wrapper should be completely sealed so that no water can get in while the dumpling is cooking.
5. Repeat until you have used up all the pork filling. As the dumplings are completed, cover them with a clean, damp dish towel to keep them from drying out.
6. To cook the dumplings, bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop in 12 to 16 dumplings. Bring the water back to a boil. Pour in two cups of cold water, cover and return to a rolling boil. Remove the lid, pour in two more cups of cold water. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the water boils again. Remove the dumplings and let them drain in a large strainer. Put them in a bowl and cover to keep warm. Repeat the process until all the dumplings are cooked.
7. Whisk together the soy sauce, sesame oil and grated garlic or ginger, if using, and divide the sauce into 4 to 6 dipping bowls.
8. Serve the dumplings in individual bowls with dipping sauce on the side.
9. Note: You can also freeze the dumplings before cooking. Place the uncooked dumplings on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Freeze for 4 hours, until they are quite firm. Remove from the parchment paper and store the dumplings in large ziplock bags—I put at least a dozen in each bag. They will keep for 6 months or more. It is not necessary to thaw them before cooking. Simply follow the cooking procedure in steps 6 and 7.