Growing up, one of my favorite meals was Chinese food from the take-out place near my family’s house in Brooklyn. The restaurant, which stood (and still stands!) across from the local police station and pizzeria, served up the typical rotation of heavily sauced and overly sweet Chinese-American favorites. We always ordered cold sesame noodles, garlicky stir-fried broccoli and beef, and sweet and sour chicken, with its cloak of bright orange sauce studded with juicy chunks of canned pineapple. This last dish was my favorite, for at the time it seemed like a delightfully sophisticated version of chicken nuggets.
I loved everything about these meals – poring over the paper menus yet inevitably choosing the same dishes every time, eagerly waiting for the doorbell to ring, the unmistakable aromas of garlic and oyster sauce wafting through the kitchen, and the little cardboard boxes of steamed rice, one of which was always left uneaten and abandoned to inedible hardness in the back of the fridge. (This was before I discovered the joys of fried rice.)
Yet there was another standby I always hoped for, one whose plain description belied its mouth-watering potential: the “pan-fried dumpling.” These dumplings never failed to amaze my young palate with their amazing contrast of textures and flavors – simultaneously chewy and crisp, bursting with juicy pork, and enlivened by the little packets of soy sauce buried at the bottom of the paper bag. We never ordered them steamed or deep-fried – only “pan-fried”, a phrase which seemed to mask the true nature of their preparation. I’ve since learned that the secret lies in the combination of frying and steaming, a technique so simple that it shouldn’t even qualify as cooking.
In Japan, these dumplings take no pains to hide their Chinese origins – the word gyōza is merely the Japanese pronunciation of the original jiǎozi. Though they are widely available at ramen shops and in supermarket freezers, I’ve concluded that it is infinitely more satisfying and fun to make them from scratch. The basic process is simple: mix up a savory filling of ground pork and garlic chives (or scallions) seasoned with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil; shape the dumplings; steam/pan-fry, and enjoy with dipping sauce. The fillings are infinitely variable, as are the sauces, though I’ve found that a soy-vinegar combination works well in most cases.
The recipes below won’t win any prizes for originality, but if you’ve never made gyōza from scratch, they’re a good place to start. The kimchi and pork version is my personal favorite, but both are superb paired with a crisp, slightly bitter beer and a plate of crunchy pickles. Better yet, gather up a group of friends and enlist them in making a big batch of dumplings (in this case, beer is almost requisite). Could there be a finer way to spend a winter’s afternoon?
Kimchi and Pork Gyōza
For all you self-professed kimchi haters: please don’t dismiss this recipe yet! When cooked, the kimchi loses some of its pungency, lending wonderful umami notes and a hint of spice to the savory filling.
Makes enough filling for about 30 gyōza
200 grams (7 ounces) not-too-lean ground pork
1/2 cup finely chopped napa cabbage kimchi
1/2 cup finely chopped garlic chives (にら)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons teaspoon toasted sesame oil (plus a little more, if pork is quite lean)
Fresh gyōza skins (these are round, unlike wonton skins, which are square. Scroll down for a picture.)
Place all filling ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well with a fork or your hands. Have a bowl of warm water handy. Working with one gyōza skin at a time, place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each skin. (Keep the other skins covered with a damp towel to prevent them from drying out.)
Dip your finger in the water and lightly moisten the edge of the skin. Fold the skin in half and firmly press the two moistened edges together. As you seal the gyōza, push out any air pockets around the filling. Crimp the sealed end decoratively, if desired.
Heat about 1 tablespoon of neutral oil in a frying pan (preferably non-stick) over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add as many gyōza as will fit without crowing the pan, flat side down.
Let cook undisturbed for about 2-3 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown.
Standing at a safe distance from the stove, add a splash of water to the pan and quickly cover. Turn down the heat to low and continue cooking for another 2 minutes, or until the gyōza are just cooked through.
Serve hot, with a dish of soy sauce and rice vinegar on the side for dipping.
Cheese and Green Pepper Gyōza
Makes enough filling for about 15 gyōza
1 cup finely grated pepper jack cheese
1/2 cup minced green pepper
Salt & pepper, to taste
Mix filling and make gyōza according to directions above.