Foodie Tuesday: The Not-So-Great Pretender

Unskilled as I am at so many culinary things, my well-intentioned fakery in attempting to prepare favorite treats from various delicious cuisines is not only highly unlikely to ever be quite accurate in its representation of the real deal but also just plain goofy and messy. I apologize to any purists out there, but I’m not above stealing ideas from everywhere I’ve ever found foods to love. And often, putting my own twisted twist on them, too. Perfect accuracy may, after all, be slightly overrated.Photo: Korean BBQ

After a recent delicious trip to a Korean BBQ house here in north Texas, I got good and hungry for a host of tasty Asian-inspired treats I hadn’t had in a while. I particularly wanted to revisit a recipe I hadn’t made by hand in many, many years: Jiaozi, or potstickers. And of course, I wandered off on my usual tangents. Making the wrapper dough wasn’t my best skill even when I was supervised by my teachers in my Chinese language, culture, and cuisine workshop back in college, and I had it in mind to attempt a gluten-free version on top of that, this time around, so instead of getting a nicely malleable dough in which to wrap the filling and practice my dumpling pleats—the one part of the wrapping that I was reasonably good at doing, thanks to Mom’s early training of me in the arts of tender lefse dough handling and pie crust edge crimping—I got falling-apart dough that was more easily squeezed around the filling in highly abstract, squishy-squashy little dumplings.

Pretty, they were not. I will attempt to revise the dough with the addition of egg binder next time and report back. But I got my poor little raggedy jiaozi to hold together just enough to fry and steam them, and the ingredients were at least agreeable enough to taste passable in the event, so I will keep trying. Meanwhile, I give you these little wounded stegosaurs:Photo: The Homeliest Jiaozi

The Homeliest Jiaozi this Side of the Yangtze

Make jiaozi wrapper dough: 3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour + 1/4 tsp salt + 1 1/4 cups cold water [+ 1 egg, probably, for future reference]. Knead well into a nice elastic dough, wrap and refrigerate to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Make filling: cook 1/2-1 cup minced meat (I used lamb this time) with 1 T minced fresh ginger, 1 tsp finely grated lemon/lime zest, 1 tsp minced fresh jalapeño, 1 handful sugar snap peas sliced crosswise into small rings, 1/1 rib celery (minced), 1 tsp minced shallots, good splashes of Tamari, rice vinegar, and dry Sherry, and a small splash of toasted sesame oil. Drain and cool the mixture slightly.

Divide the wrapper dough into 60 pieces, starting work with 1/4 of it at a time and keeping the rest chilled until ready to prepare dumplings. Roll each little piece into a ball and then into a flat circle, about 3″ in diameter. Put a small spoonful of meat filling on the wrapper, pull the sides into a half-moon shape around it, and gently pleat the curved edge, sealing it with water, egg wash, and/or a fork’s tines. Or, if your dough behaves like mine did, pull it up around the filling and squeeze the sorry-looking little objects into submission.

Pour a little cooking oil (I used avocado) into a large, flat pan, place the dumplings curved side up in the oil like little half-moon sailboats with just a little space between them, and put the pan on medium heat. As the bottoms of the jiaozi begin to brown, pour a little broth or water over them (just about 1/4″ or so), cover the pan, and let them steam gently for a few minutes to firm up, watching that the heat doesn’t get too high, or the liquid will cook away completely or break the dumplings into mush. At this point, the jiaozi can be refrigerated in a covered dish to be finished later. I put mine in a microwave-proof small casserole that still allowed them to sit on their flat bases in one layer, pouring the remaining steaming liquid over the top, so that I could finish steaming them and, if needed, crisping their little bases, when I was about to serve them for lunch the next day. Or you can, of course, keep on with the steaming and crisping for immediate eating.

Serve them hot, with a saucy little blend of Tamari, vinegar, and a few hot pepper flakes or added crushed fresh ginger on hand for dipping them.

Chinatown is Everywhere

It was true when the world was much younger, but all the more so in this age of easy travel and speedy communication: the globe shrinks, cultures meet and intermingle, and there’s less and less difference between one city and another. A minuscule part of me is sadder each time I see English plastered across the signs and storefronts of a foreign country that used to seem more exotic and culturally distant from where I grew up and lived my life. Intermingling can easily lead to homogeneity, and that can be mighty boring.
Photo montage: Chinatown is Everywhere

But then I am reminded that even when travel was arduous and communication as slow as molasses in a meat locker, cultures met, mixed and mated, and gradually produced new and fantastic variants of themselves. Where would we be if languages had never borrowed and stolen terms from each other, evolved and changed over time? If nobody had ever crossed a border, learned about another culture, married a foreigner, or learned the way a more advanced or inventive group could accomplish tasks more efficiently and elegantly, would humans even still be around to do that stuff anymore?

My attitude is changing. Now, I really do still greatly appreciate that there are recognizable ethnic neighborhoods in nearly every city, every country. They’re wonderful microcosms of the nations and peoples that immigrated and founded them. But I also love that there’s a regular hurricane of linguistic mash-ups, cultural blending and reinvention of characteristics that comes from our happy meetings on new shores. It’s how we got here; it’s how we’ll move forward and continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, as long as there are those fantastic ethnic-enclave neighborhoods still in action, I’ll know I can follow the locals and find the best jiaozi and sticky rice in town when I get hungry.