A dish which sums up the career of a great cook might be a delicately poached fish with a beurre blanc sauce or a grilled prime cut — or in my grandfather's case, a tiny parcel of boiled dough.
During research for my book Chefs Collective: Recipes, Tips and Secrets from 50 of the World's Greatest Chefs, I discovered some exceptional chefs. But there's another who's been right under my nose.
My grandfather Yang Yu Chuan, who's sadly no longer with us, excelled at dumplings. They were the star of his menu at Peking Restaurant in Orange County, California. They weren't the thin-dough Shanghai xiao long bao you see in many restaurants, but the original dumplings which have a much thicker dough. They were structured and slightly chewy (otherwise described as 'Q' in Taiwan, but that is another story).
The filling of these types of dumpling is often pork or another protein mixed with vegetables like Chinese cabbage and wombok or bite-size prawns to make them even tastier and juicier. But fillings change from generation to generation, whether that be the grind of the meat, fat ratio, type of veggies or how the dumplings are cooked.
You say ravioli, I say dumplings
The cultural diversity of dumplings is inspiring for the everyday home cook. There's manju from Korea, pelmeni from Siberia, which was introduced by the Mongols, and banh bot loc, which are Vietnam's translucent and bouncy dumplings filled with pork and shrimp. And who can forget ravioli from Italy, pierogies from Poland and maultaschen from Germany.
As much as I love dumplings in every shape and form, I remain wholeheartedly loyal to the original dumplings from China called jiaozi. Food historians believe that Chinese doctor Zhang Zhongjing invented them during the Han Dynasty. He filled jiaozi with medicinal ingredients to keep his patients healthy during harsh winters.
As an Australian Born Chinese (ABC), I rarely told the truth when at primary school in Melbourne we were asked what we had for dinner. When I said roast beef, I meant stewed pork knuckle. Steamed veggies were actually wok-fried garlic bok choy and ice cream for dessert was mung bean soup. But as much as I encouraged my mum to make more 'non-embarrassing' foods as a child, I could never refuse our family speciality: dumplings.
Not all Chinese families know how to make dumplings. Northerners, like my grandparents, are the ones who specialise in this mastery. Although many laud their own dumplings, my grandfather's are hard to beat.
My grandparents moved from Northern China to Taiwan to start a range of food businesses which involved flour and water — two ingredients that were cheap and easy to turn into something tasty like instant hand-pulled noodles and of course dumplings.
"Although many laud their own dumplings, my grandfather's are hard to beat."
My grandfather made a bold move in 1980 by moving to California and buying a fish n' chips shop near California's famous Huntington Beach; he was an entrepreneur at heart. With very little success in frying fish (or chips for that matter) in a very 'white' Orange County, my grandfather began making dumplings. He filled his home with cookbooks and called upon his chef friends to help him perfect his jiaozi.
Even though I couldn't make them quite as he did, he was always encouraging. I remember when I first made his jiaozi during our yearly visit from Australia and he said, "Look, she made dumplings!" They were ugly no doubt, but he would never say. Instead, he'd tell me to go out and play. "Kids should not be in a kitchen, it is too much work," my yie yie (grandfather in Mandarin) would say.
Meaning "ear bread", alluding to its shape, ural pelmeni are made from a thin flour dough and encase a filling that often comprises of freshly minced pork,lamb and beef. Traditionally these dumplings were made at the start of winter, stored outside to freeze and were boiled as they were needed. Pelmeni are usually served with melted butter or dill and a dollop of sour cream.
On another visit in the early 90s, as Peking Restaurant expanded to a second eatery, I made dumplings for our family lunch in his new kitchen. As woks fired in the background and staff ran around to push food orders out quickly, dumplings seemed to fly out the door. I loved the chaos. I wanted in on the action and offered to help make jiaozi. My aunt, the restaurant manager at the time, said they were going to the VIP table because they were perfect, but I remember seeing out of the corner of my eye her replacing a few misshape dumplings with my grandfather's. However, it was still an honour to have my dumplings on the same plate as yie yie's.
Suffice to say; my grandfather has left a legacy at his 40-year-old restaurant, which his second wife now runs. On the wall are newspaper clippings from the late US food writer Jonathan Gold who hailed yie yie's dumplings as delicious, and loyal customers stop me to say, "when your grandfather was here, the dumplings were out of this world!" I don't tell his wife, but she knows that using machines to roll out the dough ultimately replaces my grandfather's Midas touch.
In Australia or wherever I find myself, my grandfather's influence prevails. My mum and her two sisters make regular dumpling dinners in Melbourne. When I'm home, I join them. Gone are the days where I was a toddler who'd play with side cuts of dough curled up on the floor with flour on my face. I can now make Yang Yu Chuan's dumplings, something I find myself doing no matter where I am in the world.
Like all good cooks, I adapt my recipe accordingly — using German sauerkraut when I'm in Europe and can't get my hands on Chinese fermented cabbage, or featuring savoy cabbage when Chinese cabbage is obscenely priced in Switzerland.
Each dumpling somehow brings back a different memory of my grandfather. When I make them with my mum, we remember what my grandfather used to say: "You're getting lazy, the dumplings are looking big" or "tighten the seal, do you want the juices to seep out?"
My grandfather's dumplings are my vice — I can't refuse them. They are my obsession, nostalgia and connection to my grandfather.
While my own dumplings are far from perfect, his know-how, passion and memory are delicately wrapped up in each jiaozi. What more could I ask for besides wishing he was sitting down at the table to eat with me and tell me about his next greatest adventure in the kitchen.
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