I like Chinese dumplings. What are they called.. bai jiu? No, that's the alcohol. Jao zi, that's it! (And bao zi, which are the breakfast dumplings, and I would move heaven and earth today to have a couple of warm bao zi next to the computer right now.) I loved them so much I wanted to learn how to cook them. I thought this would be easy... well, the finding someone to teach me, not the cooking itself. But it turned out to be more difficult than I thought.
See, the people that I knew in China were all youngish women, most of them living in households with their parents. (This seems very common in China. Lily, of whom the less we say the better, stilled live at home with her parents as a single woman of 25, whereas Bao Ing, her husband Wei, and her daughter all lived with Wei's parents, to help with child care and the like.) So, none of the women I knew actually knew how to cook the things. But, Bao Ing, being incredibly friendly and resourceful, agreed to find me a cooking teacher. And she did - her father-in-law.
I was very eager for my first cooking lesson, even though everyone else thought I was being strange. Who would want to learn how to cook dumplings, when I could far more easily just get them take out down the street. But, I liked them, and I liked the idea of being able to make a batch and eat them at 4 a.m. or something strange like that, and since the entire city of Jiangyan shut down at 9:30, I would need to know how to make them myself.
This might have been easier if either a) Wei's father had spoken English or b) Bao Ing or Wei had been around during the lesson to translate.
It was an interesting evening, to say the least. Wei's father would mix up some... stuff... that was black... in with some meat... that was not black. And added some white stuff. Then he fried it up, in some other stuff that wasn't cooking oil. Once it was ready, he grabbed a handful of the little sheaths that you make the dumplings in, put a bit of the dumpling mix in the sheath, and then did some complicated and interesting finger gymnastics with it in order to make the sheath-mix combination into a tasty dumpling. After he'd made a few, he'd fry them (or boil them, depending on some arcane thing I never determined). They never took long to cook, and then we'd eat them with vinegar and soy sauce and much yumminess would follow.
I did my fair share of mixing and adding and cooking, and although, for the most part, mine tasted fine, they looked like something your average 4 year old would make out of play-dough.
Bao Ing and Wei came along after I'd made my 15th or so, and Ing translated for me what most of the ingredients were. Soy sauce was in there, I can't remember what meat it was that first time, and the white stuff was untranslatable, but not salt. (I later realized this was MSG.) Since she and Wei had gotten to know me pretty well by that point, there was much mocking of my technique in folding the little dumplings into "flowers". (Flowers? I didn't see it, and still don't.) We talked a lot, and laughed a lot, and Ing confessed she hadn't a clue how to fold the things, either, so I shouldn't feel bad, and Wei just laughed a lot. He always laughed a lot - such a happy man. I miss them both.
The next day Wei's father escourted me to the open market, and we went around and bought all the things I would need to make the stuff myself. There was apparently some heated bargaining over prices, but I was peacefully oblivious and justed handed over how ever many quai I was asked for.
I did love making them, and I've found the little sheaths for sale here, frozen, in the Chinese supermarket. I should make some more, soon. Digs has a recipe for them which looks basically like what I did (complete with folding instructions!), but with more fillings and the like.
Mmmm... just thinking about this is making me crave proper Chinese food. Little dumplings (lots of little dumplings), some eggs and tomatoes mix together, some really good rice, and something I can't identify to drink. Oh, and something with egg plant, of course.
China is an amazingly good place to eat. I really need to get back there....