Photo: Valeria Necchio
Last week marked a new lunar year, so in conjunction with my UNISG classmates, we held a Chinese New Year celebration, with all the Asian-style dishes you can possibly concoct (using the limited supplies found in Italy). There were all the classic, prosperity-bringing foods, like fish and tangerines, along with Thai-style noodles, pork with black bean sauce, and a heaping bowl of deep-fried squid. Yum, bring out the Sriracha!
For the occasion, I decided to make jiaozi (餃子) and nian gao (年糕). Now, I am pretty pro at making potstickers (although I haven’t figured out how to pleat them one-handed yet), but usually I just buy pre-made wrappers. Hey, stop judging, it takes long enough to mince the filling, fold and cook everything! However, in the bountiful land of Italy, packages of jiaozi wrappers are a little more difficult to come by. I could spend the day going to Turin to search them out, or alternatively, make them from scratch. It probably would have taken the same amount of time. In the end, cost won out and I decided to tackle making wrappers by hand.
So, I skyped my mom and asked her for a wrapper recipe. Now, you have to understand that when you ask Asian moms for recipes, they tell you something like, “Oh, that’s easy. First, you take two spoonfuls of X and a bag of Y, then you mix in some Z and add a cup of water, then steam it until it’s done. Is that clear?” Wait, what do you mean a spoonful? Is that a tablespoon or a teaspoon? And a bag, how much is that? “Oh, I mean a Chinese soup spoon. And you know—a bag! The brand of flour I always buy, I just use the whole bag.” Whoa, hold on, so when you say a cup of water, what kind of cup is that? “Oh, I always use this cup [gestures], the porcelain one with the flowers on it.” Um, okay, what about the steaming? How do you steam this? “What do you mean, how? Don’t you know how to steam things? Ai-yah, college-educated and brains are still empty!” At this point, we both throw our hands up in dismay.
In the end, vigorous interrogation tactics and cross-checking with the internet resulted in directions that seemed likely to work. On the day of, I carefully kneaded my dough and began rolling out disks with a wine bottle (we don’t have a rolling pin). Alas, although I coated each one with flour, when I piled them on top of each other, the wrappers stuck together in a huge glob. Two hours of labor, wasted. I wanted to kick myself. Luckily, the dough was pliable enough that it could be rerolled a second time. This time, I did not stack the wrappers at all. Lesson learned.
While I was slaving away in the kitchen, my roommate Valeria poked her head in to see me methodically rolling out wrapper after wrapper. “Oh oh, you’re making potstickers. With pork? Can I photograph them?!” Apparently, there was a meme in the Italian food blogosphere to make pork dishes as a political protest to demand the resignation of Berlusconi. (For more info, check out “Liberamoci del Maiale,” or get rid of the pig.) Thus, the photo above is drastically higher-quality than my usual stuff—look at what you can do with an SLR camera! You would never have guessed that photo was taken on an ironing board, and the potstickers were a day old and cold.
As for the nian gao (sticky rice cake), the directions my mom and grandmother provided resulted in a cake that was extremely, well, sticky. Even though I greased everything thoroughly, I was struggling to yank the cake out of the pan. When I complained to my mom that her ratio of flour to water was way off, she insisted that was the way my grandma always made it. A day later, she called back and said, “Taotao, I think I know why your nian gao was so sticky. See, when you make nian gao for the new year, you never immediately eat it—you put it on the altar for 15 days first! And then, after it’s dried out and hard as a rock, you slice it up and fry it.” Well then, I guess we had atheist nian gao last week.
Anyway, if you are unable to count on ambiguous recipes from your own Chinese mother, here are some tried and true directions below.
4 c all-purpose flour to ~1 c water, a pinch of salt
Add the water slowly, and adjust as needed until the dough comes together. It will be a little drier than bread dough. Knead the dough into a “snake” and fold it in half, until it is smooth (7-10 min). Roll into a snake with a diameter slightly larger than a dollar-coin, and cut off lengths about the width of your top thumb joint. With the cut side down, press the disk flat with your palm, and roll into a circular wrapper. As you flatten the dough, don’t roll your pin all the way into the center of the disk, so that the wrapper is slightly thicker in the middle. USE IMMEDIATELY OR COAT WITH LOTS OF FLOUR.
1 lb ground pork (preferably fatty)
1 bunch garlic chives, chopped (can substitute 2 leeks, half a napa cabbage)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1″ ginger, minced
handful shiitake mushrooms, chopped (optional)
2 t salt
2T soy sauce
2T sesame oil
Jiaozi wrappers (see above) (or buy them, but be careful not to buy square wonton wrappers)
Combine all ingredients except for the dumpling wrappers and mix well.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of a dumpling wrapper. Use water to wet the edge of half of the wrapper. Fold and pleat the dumpling wrapper. The classical style is to start at the center and pleat toward both ends. Only, pleat the layer closest to you, while the other side stays smooth. This results in concave, moon-shaped dumplings that sit nicely. Alternatively, any folding method that results in a sealed dumpling will taste just as good…
To cook the potstickers, heat 3T of oil (peanut or vegetable) in a frying pan. Place the potstickers into the pan, right-side up, and pan fry them until the bottoms are golden. Be careful that they don’t stick to each other, or the pan! Then turn the heat to medium-low, add a small amount of water (about 1/8 c) to the pan, and immediately cover it. (Yes, this goes against everything I’ve been taught about not mixing hot oil with water.) This will steam the potstickers through and make sure the filling is fully cooked. After about 3-5 min of steaming, the potstickers will be ready to eat. Serve with a dipping sauce of 1 part soy sauce to 1 part rice vinegar, plus a little sugar. You can add chili paste, minced garlic or scallions to this as well.
Cantonese-style Brown Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake)
This is NOT the same as the northern-style nian gao which is usually white and savory (and far inferior to the southern-style stuff). 😉
16 oz glutinous rice flour
1 c water (or less, if you don’t plan to use it for altar-worship for the next 2 weeks)
1 c brown sugar or 2 pieces of Chinese pian tang bar sugar
Heat the water and sugar until dissolved. Add syrup to flour slowly, mixture will be thin. Steam in a greased 9” round for an hour, or until a knife inserted into the center can be removed cleanly. Press half a date into the center, and sprinkle the surface with sesame seeds. Let cool.
At this point, you can slice up the nian gao and eat it as is, but (like everything else) it is far better when fried. Add a generous amount of oil to a frying pan and add pieces of nian gao, about 1/4-1/2″ thick. Be careful not to let the pieces stick to each other, or to the pan. Beat an egg, and when the nian gao has browned on both sides, toss each piece with a little bit of egg, and cook for another 20 seconds until the egg has set. The idea is to get the edges of the nian gao crisp, while the center is chewy and soft, and to contrast the carmelized sugar with savory egg. Serve to an audience of newbies, and you will be rewarded with eyes rolled back and shouts of, “I get it! I get it!”