Sunday dawned and we readied ourselves to set out to spend the day making dumplings at the apartment of Diana, one of my Chinese colleagues. To make dumplings was quite a treat. We were privileged to be asked, as a Chinese person would usually only make them with their closest friends. It's common practice in the northern parts of China and it's a tradition to do so at the time of the New Year's Festival.
We met up with some other expatriate friends (along with one of their visitors) outside a major shopping mall where we could catch the bus. All together we were 8 foreigners. I'm sure we caught the attention of the locals, having such a large cluster of Caucasian folk in one place at one time. The bus we needed was the number 300. Not the 300A, not the 300B but the 300. This was made slightly more difficult because the A and B designators weren't adjacent the bus numbers, rather they were on cards in the windscreens of the buses. Fortunately Diana had written down lots of useful info including the full bus title which showed 5 Chinese characters on one side of the '300' and three on the other. Hey, when you can't read the Chinese characters you can always at least count them .
After arriving at the right bus stop we were met by our very cordial hosts, Harry and Diana. Their apartment is fairly new and about 45 minutes to the north of the centre of town, outside the Special Economic Zone border. Diana and Harry had already done a lot of preparation work before we arrived however there was still lots to do. For the next hour or so we chopped, diced, washed, stirred, sliced, mixed, ground, cleaned, de-shelled, kneaded and rolled, all to prepare the ingredients.
Our first goal was to prepare the ingredients to make 4 different types of dumplings:
- Carrot based pork dumplings
- Standard pork dumplings
- Shrimp dumplings
- Tofu dumplings
One job was to prepare the shrimp. Philip and Tab set to this task with gusto, Philip beheading the fresh shrimp and Tab de-veining and tailing them. Here you can see that Tab is getting right into the Chinese culture by adopting a very culturally-appropriate posture for the task at hand. While they were doing this Dave 1 and I set about tenderising the port mince (with chopsticks!) while Dave 2 reclined on the couch, feeling lethargic and achy whilst his body contended with foreign germs.
The next task was to assemble the dumplings. Here Diana rolled out a bit of dough, scooped up some mixture and formed a perfect dumpling in less time than it's taken you to read this sentence. So, it looked easy. Hmmm. For the next 1 - 2 hours we proceeded to fumble our way through making about 150 dumplings. Some were big, some were small, some were odd shapes and some were just plain weird-looking. Try as we might, nothing we ever made came even close to matching anything I've ever seen in a restaurant. Still, good fun was had by all.
There's a whole range of factors that need to be considered when making dumplings. The pastry needs to be circular and slightly thicker in the middle, the moisture level of the pastry must be just right, the amount of mixture needs to be measured precisely and the biggest challenge of all is folding them in the right way. Get it wrong and the dumpling may open up whilst it's being cooked, destroying the dumpling. Needless to say, we failed miserably at making good-looking dumplings, our only hope was that they'd taste better than they looked.
A Chinese tradition is to put a small coin inside a few dumplings. Those that find the coin, when eaten at Chinese New Year, will get extra good luck for that year. We'd brought along an Aussie 5c piece, Cyril brought along a small Swiss coin and Diana had a 2 Fen coin (0.3 Australian cents) that went out of circulation in China about 15 years ago. After a good clean they all went into the mixture. Diana also produced a much larger silver coin, which was over 50 years old. Apparently if you blow on the edge of it and hold it to your ear then a sound can be heard. Despite my attempts, I never heard a thing. It did look funny whilst I tried, though.
When the time came for eating we weren't disappointed. Despite our best efforts to destroy the dumplings they tasted really good. We couldn't take any credit for this, it was all down to the hard work of Diana and Henry. They were amazingly gracious hosts, putting up with a bunch of foreigners making a mess of a significant Chinese tradition. We couldn't thank them enough for allowing us to be involved in such an important piece of Chinese culture, as well as having a lot of fun!
We returned home to Gail, who's ankle was still giving her trouble. Rather than go out for tea again we decided to stay in. After a quick sprint to the shops, where Tab stocked up on western goodies, we returned to the apartment armed with everything necessary for a night of fine lasagne and Australian wine. We splurged on a few extra imported items to make the meal complete. We even managed to find a Coopers beer! That night we had a veritable feast. It was a chance to eat, drink and talk like we were thousands of miles away… like we were back in Australia… like we were home.