Sometimes I find food shopping in Paris like trying to catch a feather: the harder and more urgent you reach for something, the harder it seems to grasp.
And with the recent tanker spill of 800,000 pounds of cocoa beans, it seems like chocolate’s going to be in short supply, so I’d better find another medium to work with. So how about pork?
So off I went to Tang Freres in Paris and found everything I needed for the Chinese dumplings known as Sui Mai. I found just about everything…except for The Most Common of All Of All Asian Ingredients Known To Mankind: cilantro, or coriandre.
Not a bunch in the bin, and I (along with 15 or so Chinese dames) mulled around in a daze, unbelievable that the largest Asian market in one of the largest cities in the world could possibly be out of cilantro. *sigh*
Few people know this but I’m a pretty decent Chinese cook. I owe that to Bruce Cost, who’s the best and most gifted chef I’ve ever worked with. Dressed in khakis and a slightly-rumpled Oxford shirt, he’d hulk over the giant wok.
His hands would drop some raw vegetables and chiles into the wok. Then casually he’d add some shrimp or strips of beef. It would sizzle and he’d stir. He’d add a few more things; maybe some strange, unknown vegetables, some sauce, and perhaps some rock sugar or vinegar Then he’d crank the heat to ultra-high, the flames would blaze up around the wok, and in spite of the drama of the roaring fire and the wok, he would just stand there, calmly stirring.
Then he’d simply slide the food on a plate and we’d all be dazzled.
Making the authentic food from many cuisines isn’t all the difficult (unless you’re making Chinese food and can’t find cilantro…) It just requires you to have on hand a few essentials. Few cities I know of lack a Chinese grocer (and most do have huge bunches of cilantro), and in my experience, most well-stocked supermarkets have a decent selection of Asian products (unless you live in…oh, never mind…)
Some notes on a few Chinese ingredients:
- Sesame Oil
The best sesame oil is made only from roasted sesame seeds and nothing else. Check the ingredients, as some brands mix sesame oil with vegetable oil.
- Fish Sauce
It smells vile, but tastes remarkable when mixed as a sauce or seasoning. I use the Squid Brand fish sauce from Thailand. In spite of the menacing-looking cephalopoda on the label, fish sauce is made from salted and fermented anchovies.
- Fresh Ginger
Fresh ginger should always be rock-hard with no signs of mold or soft spots. You can peel ginger with a paring knife or vegetable peeler, but scraping it with a soup spoon works well to get around the nooks-and-crannies.
- Water Chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts are quite expensive in Paris, where they’re called chataigne d’eau. The only ones available were cryovac’d. When I got home, I tasted a few and they were so fermented that I had to toss them out. Luckily I bought some canned ones for insurance (proof that as you get older you get smarter), and used those. But the fresh are much better, and they’re easily available and inexpensive in Asian markets in the United States. If using canned water chestnuts, double the amount called for.
Fresh shrimp is expensive and I’ve found that good-quality peeled raw shrimp is fine to use for dumplings.
About 60 Dumplings
Adapted from the repertoire of Bruce Cost
This is a lot of pork to chop.
Yes, it took me about an hour and it’s quite a good workout, but I didn’t feel the need to go to yoga today…although chopping all that meat may be
bad karma, so perhaps I should go tomorrow for redemption. (Can you ‘bank’ karma?)
But the dumplings have a much better texture if you han-chop the pork and shrimp, although you could use a food processor, or buy pre-ground pork.
- 2½ pounds (1 kilo) pork shoulder (palette de porc)
- 1 pound (450 gr) shelled raw shrimp
- 1 bunch scallions, well-chopped (use as much of the green part that's edible)
- ½ bunch cilantro, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoon salt
- 2½ tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 large egg
- 1½ tablespoons roasted sesame oil
- 6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely-minced fresh ginger (peel before chopping)
- Round won ton wrappers (or square ones...if the largest Asian market in your city doesn't carry round ones)
1. Using a large kitchen cleaver, cut the pork into slices, then finely chop all the pork up. Put into a bowl.
2. Chop up the shrimp into small pieces and add to the bowl.
3. Use your hands to mix in the scallions, cilantro, fish sauce, salt, corn starch, egg, sesame oil, water chestnuts, and fresh ginger.
Yummy looking? Well, not yet…
4. Form the meat mixture into balls about 1-inch (3 cm) and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Ok, much better…
5. Take a won ton wrapper and place a meatball in the center. Gather the edges up and press the wrapper against the meat making a little cylinder.
Repeat with remaining meatballs.
6. To steam the dumplings, line a bamboo steamer with banana leaves and oil them lightly. Turn on the heat, and once the steamer is hot, steam the dumplings until hot all the way through, which will take about 5 minutes. (You can also use a steamer basket lined with cheesecloth, or lightly oiled.)
If you wish, the meatballs sans the won-ton wrappers can be gently dropped into simmering water and cooked for about 5 minutes, until cooked through, then served with the dipping sauce, or floating in soup.
Once steamed and cooled, the dumplings can be frozen in freezer-bags.
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger (peeled)
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons white Chinese vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon white pepper
3-4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1-2 teaspoons chili oil
Mix all the ingredients together. Serve with the hot, steamed dumplings.