|Folding a little chopped meat or vegetables into a piece of dough does wonders for the palate. Dumplings and loosely-folded wraps are ubiquitous items in menus in Asian countries as well as America. Palm-sized treasures, wrapped delicacies can be stuffed with just about anything. The possible combinations of meat, vegetables, seafood, and other morsels make for endless experimentation. While Chinese cuisine is credited with pioneering the concept of wraps and dumplings, other cultures have put their own fingerprints on hand-held bundles of tastiness.
It is suspected that the idea of folding meat and vegetables into a wrapper and tightly sealing them in came to significance during the Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 B.C. until 220 A.D. During this period of artistic and literary success, the Chinese first became acquainted with the flour mill. The mill greatly influenced rice and wheat flour production.
The first step in creating dumplings is flattening and shaping dough that can withstand the intended filling. Dumpling wrappers are made from a variety of sources—wheat, egg, rice, potato, tapioca starch, wheat starch, palm starch, buckwheat. Water will usually do for sealing the wrappers. From there, dumplings can be boiled, steamed, pan-fried, or even deep-fried.
One of the most widespread types of Chinese dumplings is the wonton. The word wonton comes from the two Chinese characters signifying “cloud” and “swallow.” The common lore is that wonton dumplings are as light as these two objects. This metaphor also ties into the wonton’s contours. They are generally molded into three different shapes—a pouch, pillow, or cloud.
If wontons arrive thick and doughy, then they have not been cooked properly. The delicate wrappers should have an airy feel and be perfectly balanced with a savory filling.
Boiled to a soft texture, wontons are typically made with shrimp or pork, sesame oil and enshrouded in a wheat or wheat-and-egg-dough wrapper. Just like chicken soup, Chinese people often find wontons in soup good for the soul. After they are boiled in water, they are placed in a chicken broth, which is usually flavored with ginger. Wontons make ideal snacks or light meals. When served in broth, they can be accompanied with flat egg noodles to create a heartier lunch.
To get a glimpse of the range of dumplings in Chinese cookery, you should try going out for a dim sum lunch. Dumplings make up a large portion of the offerings on waitresses’ carts. A favorite is siu mai—pork-filled dumplings steamed in circular wonton wrappers. However, the wonton skins on these dumplings are pleated up the sides so the filling is visible from the top. The filling itself is usually sticky, aiding in the adherence of the wrapper.
An equally requested dim sum item is haar gao. These shrimp dumplings come in wrappers made of wheat and tapioca starch. When cooked, the wrappers become translucent. Pink shrimp should be visible through the skins. The entire filling typically consists of shrimp, bamboo, and water chestnuts.
Another tasty wrapped dumpling is jaozi. These crescent-shaped dumplings can hold meat, seafood, or vegetable fillings. They are either boiled or steamed. But jaozi are probably more recognizable pan-fried. When fried, they literally adhere to a pan’s surface which is the main reason they are called potstickers, or wortip in Chinese. Their commonly stuffed with beef and garlic chives or pork and ginger. Of course, you are free to alter recipes to suit your own tastes.
Dumplings in Japanese cookery originate from Chinese culture. The Japanese version of siu mai is more or less a replica of a Chinese recipe except with more understated flavors. In Japanese restaurants, appetizer menus usually offer gyoza which are potstickers made with a pork filling.
The Korean equivalent of dumplings or wrapped morsels is called mandu. The various mandu are made from either skins of wheat flour or buckwheat flour. One kind, pyonsu, is a square-shaped dumpling made with thin-stripped beef, pyogo mushrooms, stir-fried zucchini, and mungbean sprouts. Mandu stuffed with the same ingredients and shaped like sea cucumber are called Gyuasang, mandu associated with the era of the Chosun dynasty. Other ingredients typically thrown into mandu include tofu, pork, minced fish meat, shrimp, and chicken. They can be steamed or deep-fried. Mustard sauce and tomato sauce are compatible condiments. Mandu also make a full lunch served in a beef broth with a side of kimchi (marinated vegetables) and rice.
If you’re looking for a Thai version of a dumpling, try making Thai curry puffs.
For the filling:
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons sliced onion
1 tablespoon chopped coriander root
1 tablespoon turmeric
11 oz. lean pork, chicken or beef, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper, white or black
7 oz. cooked mashed potato
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
Stir-fry garlic in the oil. Add onion, coriander root, turmeric and stir-fry for several minutes. Then add minced meat, sugar, salt and pepper and stir-fry until meat is tender. Lower heat and add potato and stir-fry so that ingredients are mixed well. Go ahead and taste to see if more sugar or pepper is needed. Add shallots, stir briefly, and then remove from heat. Place filling in large bowl to cool.
For the wrapping, you can go to the frozen food section of your local grocery and buy puff pastry sheets. After the sheets have been somewhat thawed, take one sheet and cut into four equal, square pieces. Take one piece and lay it flat with a corner towards you. Place 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle of the square. Then lift the bottom corner (the one nearest you) to its opposite corner, resulting in a triangular parcel. Seal edges with your fingers, pinching in the pastry to create a wavy border. Once you’ve used up all the filling, deep-fry several at a time in a wok or saucepan filled with 1-1/2 cups of vegetable oil until golden brown. Serve with Thai satay sauce or chili sauce.
There is almost no wrong food to stuff in a wrap as long as a balance of flavors is maintained. Some ingredients and condiments are more specific to an Asian culture than others. Possible packaging for Asian wraps ranges from rice paper to lettuce leaves.
A classic wrap found on the menu of most Chinese American restaurants is mu shu pork, which translates to shredded pork. Both mu shu wrappers and flour tortillas, softened on a griddle, make fine wrappers. The filling also consists of dried black mushrooms, cabbage, onions, carrots—all cut into thin strips—and beaten eggs. The pork is usually marinated in soy sauce beforehand. In general, wrappers and filling are served separately so diners are free to wrap themselves. Mu shu pork goes well with a small dish of hoisin (oyster) sauce.
In Vietnamese and Thai cultures, wrapped dishes tend to incorporate herbs such as lemongrass, mint, basil, and cilantro. Beef is a classic meat selection for filling. Of course, recipes can include pork, shrimp, duck, and even quail. A sprinkling of coarsely chopped peanuts on wraps is also associated with Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Fish sauce, the typical dipping sauce, can also be spiced up by combining minced garlic, chiles, lime juice, and sugar.
A popular wrap sold by vendors on the streets of Indonesia is the martabak. Originally from India, this snack consists of boiled beef, lamb, or goat meat mixed with onions, eggs, and spices such as cumin and curry. The wrap dough is made with flour, salt, water, and oil. The dough is then divided into four pieces and rolled out into thin circles. Each circle is then placed on a large frying pan or griddle. The next step is to spoon in filling and carefully fold the dough like an envelope. When the martabak becomes a golden brown on both sides, the martabak is ready. It can be cut into smaller pieces. The martabak has its own versions in Malaysia and Singapore as well.
Although it would be less labor to order wraps the next time you go out to eat, consider trying to make some yourself. Inviting family or friends over for a do-it-yourself lunch of stuffing wraps is a fun way to catch up with people. Kids who like to work with their hands can also get in on the action. For a guide, you’ll find Asian Wraps & Rolls by Vicke Liley in our cookbook section. Get insight for the shopping list and the actual cooking. You may also want to peruse our cookware pages for high-quality bamboo steamers. With all these tools at your disposal, you’ll be able to expertly say “that’s a wrap.”
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