Around 5:30, when I entered Chinatown, the streets were already dark but shops beckoned me in with their lights shining on outdoor displays of silvery, scaly fish and boxes of dried, gnarled mushrooms. I was going to make dumplings, and I thought a Chinatown grocery expedition would be an appropriately fun adventure. I had discovered a dumpling recipe on NPR, which meant that my dumpling consumption was no longer limited to hunting out a vegetarian dim sum restaurant. The recipe broke down a novel treat into such easy steps that I couldn’t believe I had never thought to make homemade dumplings. So after work, I headed to Chinatown, in search of dried shitake mushrooms, round wonton wrappers, two heads of bok choy, and a bottle of sesame oil.
I visited four different stores, each time asking for help in distinguishing the dried shitake mushrooms from the other varieties of mushrooms. Most people told me “No English” forcing me to continue exploring until I finally came across a man who not only spoke English but told me where I could find everything I needed (his store is on the corner of Grand and Bowery). I bought my five shitake mushrooms and sesame oil from him, but when I asked for the wonton wrappers, cellophane noodles, and bok choy, he told me to go to the grocery store around the corner.
I like Chinatown’s sense of place, the immediacy of its streets, so I don’t really mind wandering around searching for items I might not find. On certain blocks, the metallic, salty smell of drying fish hovers in the air. I don’t like the smell, but I like SMELLS, street smells, smells that assault or entice. Perpetually packed sidewalks with people outfitted in puffy jackets and vendors selling oranges and knots of ginger force me to dodge children, to weave in and out of the crowds. I like this street activity, the families shopping for dinner or a hat. I like the sense of community, of activity larger than my lonesome shopping expedition. Life is moving in these streets. Like reading a good book, when I walk through Chinatown, I feel as though I’ve entered a new world.
The Chinese grocery store the man recommended was large, well lit, and bustling with customers. All the signs were in Chinese, and instead of carrying sweet potatoes and heads of cauliflower, it sold piles of green beans, many different types of wonton wrappers and noodles, and bok choy ranging in color from lily-pad green to ivory-white. Walking through the aisles was like being in a warped wonderland: I couldn’t read any of the handwritten Chinese signs identifying various foods, but it was exhilarating to be surrounded by hundreds of new products. The possibilities! Again, a man who spoke English helped me identify which variety of bok choy, wonton wrappers, and noodles to buy.
I spent a total of $8 on the mushrooms, sesame oil, two heads of bok choy, and wonton wrappers. I didn’t buy the tofu from the store because the recipe called for extra-firm, and I could only find firm and regular.
At home, we soaked the mushrooms in hot water, squeezed the water out of the chopped bok choy, boiled the glassy cellophane noodles for under two minutes, chopped up our tofu into fine blocks, and mixed everything together with the sesame oil and grated ginger. The intoxicating aroma of Asian sesame oil, by the way, comes from toasted sesame seeds…
We assembled a line of dumpling-makers in our kitchen. While one of us spooned the dumpling mixture into the middle of a round wonton wrapper, another one wet the edges of the wrapper with a finger dipped in water and pressed the ends together until they stuck and formed perfect, half-moon purses. I experimented and pressed the ends together at one point until the dumplings looked like miniature mountain peaks. Then we dropped them, 5-6 at a time, into boiling water. They boiled for about 3-4 minutes; when they floated to the top of the water, we removed them. Anthony made a dipping sauce by combining soy sauce with sriracha, sesame oil, and sugar. Our darling dumplings were delicious.
Excerpt: ‘From Lokshen to Lo Mein’
The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food
by Donald Siegel
Enough filling for ~40 dumplings
1/2 pound bok choy, chopped medium fine
5 Dried shitake mushrooms
1 ounce dried cellophane noodles
1/4 pound of extra firm tofu or dried tofu
1 Tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of grated fresh ginger
1 Package of round wonton or pot sticker skins
1. Sprinkle a bit of salt on the chopped bok choy and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then take your hands and squeeze out the rendered water.
2. Add mushrooms to boiling water in a small bowl, turn off the heat, and cover until they soften (~ 30 minutes), drain, remove stems, finely dice, and then squeeze out the water with your hands.
3. In another pot, put noodles in hot boiled water, turn off heat, and let sit a few minutes to soften. Drain, chop, and add to the mushrooms and greens.
4. Finely dice the tofu and add with sesame oil, salt and ginger to vegetable mixture as filling.
5. Put a teaspoon of filling in the middle of the wonton skin. Moisten the edges of the skin with water and then fold over. You can crimp the dumpling in pleats if you like to get a more authentic look.
6. Bring a 2-quart pot of water to a boil and drop in dumplings. Cook for 5 minutes and then remove with slotted spoon. Serve with soy sauce or a favorite dipping sauce.
Chef’s Hint: Use dried shitaki mushrooms, not fresh. They are the secret “meaty” ingredients that make these dumplings so delicious. Squeezing out the water prevents the dumplings from getting soggy inside.