Many people have emotional connections to particular foods. Certain flavors of ice cream might trigger flashbacks to childhood summers spent hiding from the heat in an ice cream shop. (Cherries Jubilee at Baskin Robbins–one time, a server knew my order as soon as I walked in the door.) Or a favorite pasta dish might evoke recollections of an awkward but sweet first date. (Whole wheat pasta with veggies at an Italian restaurant in Marina del Rey, with the man who is now my official taste tester.)
One of the most significant foods in my life has been my mom’s dumplings. With these dumplings, flavor is a given. Everyone who has tried these agrees that they are hands-down delicious. But this is a food that I grew up on, that I have made over and over again with my mom, dad, and brother, and now my husband, too. Everything about these dumplings–the taste, the shape, the texture–speaks to me about my family.
Over the years, my mom has made dumplings with a variety of different fillings, but these shrimp and pork dumplings are a classic, one that she returns to again and again. The taste of these dumplings is something of a family legacy. The last time we made these together, my mom told me that the “secret” to these dumplings was handed down to her from her uncle–green onions, and heaps of them, are crucial for filling that is full of savory flavor. My mom likes to use the leanest meat she can find for these dumplings, but over the years she’s learned to add a bit of olive oil for moisture, resulting in a fresh filling that is tender without being greasy.
The shape is uniquely ours, too. Every family has its own way of folding dumplings. My mom once told me that one of the first times she met my dad’s parents, they made dumplings together. In a tacit nod of welcome into the family, my dad’s father commented on how nicely she folded the dumplings. Decades later, when I brought my future husband home to meet my parents, teaching him to fold the dumplings was something of an act of initiation into our clan.
Even though my parents know how to make their own dumpling skins, our family still roundly prefers packaged skins for their thinness, which has influenced the specific shape of our family’s dumplings–roughly 3-sided and pleated along the back side of the seam, for a pudgy, slightly rounded half-moon shape.
When we were still quite young, my brother and I were taught by my parents how to pinch and tuck the floury skins to shape the dumplings. Having made these for the past 15-plus years of my life, I think I can fold a pretty neat dumpling, but even now, I have yet to master the skill the way my parents have. The folding goes something like this:
- Spoon some of the meat mixture into the center of the dumpling skin.
- With your finger, dab some water around the edge of the skin.
- Pick two points along a diameter of the skin and pinch them together.
- Hold the dumpling in one hand with the seam side up. Using the other hand, gather a bit of the skin on one side of the dumpling and push it toward the seam, keeping the skin on the other side of the seam flat. Pinch together. Create another pleat if you have enough space; if not, just pinch down to the end of the skin until it is sealed on one side.
- Repeat on the other side. Et voilà.
My mom’s dumplings contain a lot of meat, held together with only a thin pleat at the top–the ideal meat to skin ratio if you ask our family. But my mom is an expert. Even though I like to stuff my dumplings as full as possible, every few dumplings I’ll have a little bit of meat escaping from the side of the skin. So f you’re just beginning, don’t stuff the dumplings too full.
Making dumplings can be a lot of work, but the process goes quicker and easier with company. My family always makes several dozen dumplings at a time, enough to eat some (a lot) for dinner and freeze some (also a lot) for later. So whenever we make dumplings, everyone who’s around pitches in and helps. Our dumpling making sessions usually become a time of warm conversation, jokes, and laughter, though sometimes we knock out a batch while just watching a movie. No matter what else we are doing while making these, the beautiful thing about these dumplings is that they always manage to bring our family together to create and eat, shaping memories that we carry throughout our lifetimes, and a legacy that ties our generations together.
- 3 pounds lean pork (use the leanest meat you can find)
- 2 pounds shrimp, medium (41/50) to large (31/35)
- 5 cups finely chopped green onions
- One 2-inch knob of ginger
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 of a head of cabbage
- 5 tbsp. salt
- 2 tbsp. sesame oil
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 5-6 packages pre-made dumpling skins
- Water for boiling
- 1. Wash the shrimp by running under cold water and adding a bit of salt. Massage until foamy, and then drain water and rinse until all bubbles have washed away. Chop into small pieces, no larger than 1/4 inch each.
- 2. Peel ginger and then grate or finely mince. Combine pork, shrimp, green onions, ginger, and 1/2 cup of olive oil, and mix well.
- 3. Chop cabbage into pieces small enough to fit into your food processor, and run through food processor until finely minced. Mix remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil into cabbage. (It is important to add oil directly to your cabbage before adding any salt to it, so that the salt doesn't leach the water out of it.) Mix cabbage into meat mixture. Add salt, sesame oil, and sugar to meat mixture, and mix together thoroughly.
- 4. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of the meat mixture into a dumpling skin. Wet the edge of the dumpling skin and fold together into whatever shape you like. Fold enough dumplings for a meal, or make more to freeze. (If you don't use all of the meat mixture, you can freeze it for future dumpling making. To freeze dumplings, lay them flat on a tray and freeze until hard, before transferring them to a large freezer bag.)
- 5. To cook dumplings, fill a pot with water about 1/3-1/2 full. Bring water to a boil, and then drop dumplings into the water, adding just enough to cover the surface area of the pot. Fresh dumplings will cook in about 6-8 minutes, and frozen dumplings will take about 8-10 minutes. Dumplings are ready when they float to the top and are slightly puffy, and the meat is cooked through (pluck out a test dumpling and slice it through the middle to be sure).
- 6. Drain dumplings in a colander, or use a slotted spoon to transfer dumplings to a serving bowl. These dumplings are great on their own, but you can also serve with soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and/or hot chili paste, if desired.
- The last time we made these together, my mom didn't add any soy sauce to the meat mixture, but she says that she does like to use it sometimes if the meat is lacking in moisture. If you'd like to use soy sauce with this recipe, reduce the salt to about 3 tbsp. and add about 1/2 cup of soy sauce.
- This recipe makes roughly 14-16 dozen dumplings, depending on how full you stuff your dumplings. Our family usually makes this many so we can eat some now and freeze some for later. Feel free to pare down the recipe as appropriate for your needs.