Sunday afternoon. Cloudy. I’m reading Fuchsia Dunlop and getting very, very hungry. I need a bowl of dan dan noodles immediately and make out a grocery list for that and her recipe for wontons.
An hour later, I’m in the kitchen making her Sichuan wontons with a stuffing of ground pork seasoned with Shaoxing wine, white pepper and spring onion greens.
I’ve found it makes an enjoyable afternoon to invite friends over to help make a batch or two. We’ll sit around the table or stand side by side at the counter, talking, listening to music and folding wonton wrappers to our own rhythm.
The repeated gestures of dabbing a teaspoon of filling onto each square wrapper, slicking the edges with water, folding the wrappers corner to corner and then bringing the other two corners together are curiously soothing.
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Daydreaming, I remember not Szechuan province, where I’ve never been, but Bologna, Italy, where I once spent a winter month learning to make gnocchi at a trattoria and hanging around a laboratorio where three or four elderly women made pasta by hand around a big wooden table. Their tortellini were the smallest and most delicate I’d ever seen, destined for tortellini in brodo (in broth), which, except in flavoring, isn’t all that different from wonton soup.
The shape of the stuffed dumpling is the very same. Only in Italy, the shape is supposed to have been inspired by the goddess Venus’ navel, while in Sichuan, Dunlop writes, they are known as “folded arms” (chao shou). “Some say this is because the raw dumplings look like the folded arms of a person sitting back in relaxation; others that it’s because of the way they are wrapped, with one corner crossed over the other and the two pinched together.”
As we finish each, we line the dumplings up on a cookie sheet like columns of soldiers. Half of a double batch will go into the freezer and, once they’re frozen, I’ll transfer them to Ziploc bags. The other half we’ll eat for supper (they take only minutes to cook), garnished in the bright heat of chili oil, crushed garlic and soy sauce infused with the flavors of Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, cinnamon and ginger.
Another recipe ideal for making with friends is pearly meatballs. Dunlop’s version goes together quickly, but you do need to soak the rice in cold water overnight.
The meatballs are basically ground pork with a little dried shrimp and fresh water chestnuts for crunch. Forget about using a spoon or scoop to make the meatballs. Your hands are your best tools, and we all vie to roll the perfectly round, walnut-size balls.
The fun part is then rolling them around in a mixture of translucent sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms and minced ham to give them a shaggy coat.
Like the wontons, you can’t make too many. Piled high on a platter, the pearly meatballs disappear in a flash.
No need for advanced cooking skills to make either the wontons or the pearly meatballs. Yet the results are spectacular and soul-satisfying.
Sichuan wontons in chili oil sauce (hong yu chao shou)
Cook time: 1 hour
Makes about 30 wontons
Recipe adapted from “Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking” by Fuchsia Dunlop. Shaoxing wine and tamari sauce are available at select well-stocked supermarkets as well as Asian markets.
3/4 ounce (thick and about 2 inches long) piece of ginger, unpeeled
5 ounces minced pork
1/2 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Ground white pepper
3 tablespoons stock
5 tablespoons finely sliced green onions, green parts only, divided
1 (200 gram) package of wonton wrappers
Plain flour, to dust
3 to 4 tablespoons sweet, aromatic soy sauce, or 3 to 4 tablespoons light or tamari soy sauce with 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons caster sugar
5 to 6 tablespoons chili oil, with its sediment
2 to 4 heaped teaspoons crushed garlic
Crush the ginger with the flat of a cleaver blade or a rolling pin, and put it in a cup with just enough cold water to cover. Place the pork, egg, Shaoxing wine and sesame oil in a bowl with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the ginger water and 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Stir well. Mix in the stock, 1 tablespoon at a time. Finally, add 3 tablespoons of the finely sliced green onions.
Fill a small bowl with cold water. Take a wonton wrapper and lay it flat in one hand. Use a table knife or a small spatula to press about 1 teaspoon of the pork mixture into the center of the wrapper. Dip a finger into the cold water, run it around the edges of the wrapper and fold it diagonally in half. Press the edges tightly together, moisten one of the corners, overlap with the opposite corner and press firmly to seal the dumpling. (They will look like Italian tortellini.) Lay on a flour-dusted tray or large plate.
Bring a large pan of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, prepare three or four serving bowls. In each bowl, place 1 tablespoon of the sweet, aromatic soy sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons chili oil with sediment and 1/2 to 1 heaped teaspoon of crushed garlic, to taste.
When the water has come to a boil, drop in the wontons. Stir gently to make sure they do not stick together. When the water returns to a rolling boil, pour in a small cup of cold water to calm it down. When the water has come to a boil for the third time, the wontons should be cooked through (cut one open to make sure). Remove the wontons with a slotted spoon, drain well and divide among the prepared serving bowls. Scatter each bowl with some of the remaining green onions. Serve immediately, stirring everything together before tucking in.
Per serving: 486 calories; 14 g protein; 39 g carb.; 1 g fiber; 30 g fat; 54 mg chol.; 2 g sugar; 1,072 mg sodium
Sweet, aromatic soy sauce (fu zhi jiang you)
Cook time: 8 minutes
Makes about 2/3 cup soy sauce
This sweetened, spiced soy sauce is the secret ingredient in the glorious, garlicky dressing used for Sichuan wontons. Light soy sauce, tamari soy sauce and Sichuan pepper are available at select well-stocked grocery stores as well as Asian markets.
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons light or tamari soy sauce
1/3 cinnamon stick or a piece of cassia bark
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/3 ounce piece of ginger, crushed slightly
3 tablespoons brown sugar
In a medium bowl, stir together the soy sauce, cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, star anise, peppercorns, ginger and brown sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Cover and store in a cool, dry place until ready to use.
Per serving: 14 calories; 1 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 550 mg sodium
Pearly meatballs (zhen zhu rou wan)
Cook time: 45 minutes, plus soaking time for the rice
Makes about 3 dozen meatballs
Recipe adapted from “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes From Hunan Province” by Fuchsia Dunlop. The rice for this dish should be soaked for a few hours, preferably overnight, before cooking. In Hunan, the cooked meatballs are often piled into a bowl and then resteamed before serving.
Glutinous rice, dried shrimp and Shaoxing wine are available at select well-stocked grocery stores as well as at Asian markets.
1 cup glutinous rice
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 slice cooked ham, about 1 ounce
12 canned or 10 fresh water chestnuts
14 ounces ground pork, a little fatty if possible
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons potato flour mixed to a paste with 2 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper
2 green onions, green parts only, finely sliced
1 to 2 teaspoons sesame oil
Rinse the rice thoroughly in cold water, and then soak for 3 hours in hot water, or overnight in cold water; drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, soak the dried shrimp and the shiitake mushrooms in separate bowls of hot water for about 30 minutes to reconstitute. After soaking, drain, squeeze dry and finely chop them separately. Finely chop the ham; set aside.
Peel the water chestnuts if you are using fresh ones, then chop them finely by hand.
In a medium bowl, combine the water chestnuts, ground pork, ginger, wine, egg and potato flour mixture. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. On a plate or in a shallow baking dish, combine the ham and shiitake with the drained rice. Lightly grease a heatproof plate with peanut oil (choose one that will fit comfortably inside a steamer).
Shape the meat mixture into walnut-sized balls and roll in the rice mixture to coat generously. Lay the meatballs in one layer on the oiled plate; you might need to steam them in two batches, depending on the size of your steamer.
Steam, tightly covered, over high heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes; break one in half to check that it is cooked. Serve directly on the plate, with a scattering of green onion and sesame oil.
Per serving: 61 calories; 3 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 3 g fat (1 g saturated); 15 mg cholesterol; 69 mg sodium