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Eating the Past with Dumplings

siu-mai-bt“Ramen packet again?” he asked me entering the communal kitchen.

“Why,” I answered trying to slurp up the overly salted noodles with a plastic fork, “you have something better in mind?”

“Actually I do. I’m going to make my nǎi nai’s siu mai today. So if you care to lend a hand I’ll let you have some.”

“Am I going to like it?”

“You could, of course, keep eating your never-ending ramen for the eighth day in a row.”

“Fine, what do I do?”

siu-mai-recipe-bt“Start washing the mushrooms, then chop them up.”

“Did you really learn to cook this from your grandmother?” I asked, mincing garlic. Two hall mates coming in to munch potato chips stayed on to watch our performance.

“Yes, she insisted that since I was the only child I should learn the family recipes. I think it was a way for her to makeup for not teaching them to my mother.” He unwrapped some ground pork, then set it sizzling in the pan.

“You learned all her recipes by heart?”

“No, just the ones she made all the time.” He added the garlic and my chopped mushrooms to his pan. “Keep an eye on this, stir it every so often, I’ll be right back.” I observed the meat turn from pink to brown. He returned with a small jar.

“What you guys making?” asked the gawkers.

“Siu mai,” he replied, “if you’re interested in having some, stick around. You can help with stuffing the shells.”

“We should get back to studying,” they answered eyeing him with apprehension, “maybe we’ll come back for some.” They left us to continue.

“What’s in the canister?” I asked.

siu-mai-beijing-bt“It’s my grandmother’s special sauce. I like to add a tiny bit. It reminds me of her.” He drew out a smidgen on the tip of a chopstick and swirled it into the sautéing pork. “She would tell me stories while I helped her cook. She said it would help me remember how to make them better.”

“What kind of stories?”

“About her life when she was young. How she used to help out in her parents’ dumpling shop before school every morning; how her father disappeared and she never found out what happened to him; how she caught my grandpa stealing buns from their back alley. Every dish she prepared had a dozen anecdotes to go with it. Most of what I know about our family comes from what I’ve heard from her.”

“Your mom never told you any stories?”

“She was too busy trying to pay the bills after my dad died. Anyway, she never talked about China, not like gran did. She was happy to leave it behind but my nǎi nai missed her life in Beijing. They remembered things differently, I think. Gran would complain that her daughter had lost all the old values and that we were forgetting who we were. Mom would remind her how horrible life used to be and how every day was a struggle to get nowhere. Gran would retort that nothing had changed for us then. At which point my mother would start crying and tell her that she was doing her best for me. They were constantly fighting actually.” He grimaced, adding, “It was painful.” I allowed silence to fill the room as he kneaded his ghosts into the stuffing.

siu-mai-plate-bt“Okay,” he continued, “now time to fill the skins. Watch me first…see how I dab it with oil then tuck it in my hands like a cup? Then fill it.” I followed his example, timidly handling the tiny circles of dough. He was deft, finishing each one in the space of a breath, while I clumsily lagged behind. Studying his fingers as they rolled and pressed and packed I thought of all the history imbued in their movements, memories running through the veins not only of how to make a familial dish but also of triumphs and tragedies of generations past.

We positioned the morsels inside a bamboo receptacle, another gift from his nǎi nai. Its sides were smooth with use, its edges frayed. “Smell this,” he said, offering the container up to my nose. I sniffed cautiously. Fennel, peppercorns, and cloves emanated from the wood. “This is what my kitchen at home used to smell like.”
“Reminds you of your grandmother too huh?”

“Yup, it’s why I like making her siu mai and làobǐng — gives me the sense of having her nearby. I feel I know who I am when I’m cooking her way.”

He opened up the bamboo vessel, gave us a pair of paper plates. Steam rose from the dumplings, wispy threads of libation. We munched without speaking, the heat from within each bite scorching the roofs of our mouths. I tried to picture the narrow hutong where his nana grew up, tried to conjure up the land running in my friend’s blood through each sesame and ginger infused chew, but the images were hazy. These were his roots, the saga of his ancestors, bits of which I was privileged enough to taste.siu-mai-basket-bt

Below is a variation on siu mai using only vegetables and rice. Both preparation and cooking for this dish will go faster if you get friends or family to help out. This is a great meal to bond over from start to finish.


Serves: 3-4 persons (35-40 dumplings)

Total Time:

2 hours 30 minutes [Preparation Time = 20 minutes, Cook Time =  2 hours 10 minutes]


1 package wonton skins, 2-inch by 2-inch squares

4 tablespoons All purpose flour

2-inch diameter circular cookie cutter

1 round cooking steamer, metal or wood

2 cups uncooked sticky rice

1 tablespoon cooking oil, plus extra for coating

16 ounces (1 pound) shiitake mushrooms, cleaned

4 whole water chestnuts, peeled and diced

2 shallots, minced

2 leeks, chopped

¾ cup peas, shelled from pods*

1 clove garlic, finely diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

½ tablespoon sesame oil

1 ½ cup water


For filling:

  1. Wash the sticky rice, soak in warm water for 30 minutes. Drain and put into a pot along with 1 and ¼ cup of water. Once water has come to a boil, continue boiling rice for 1 minute. Cover and let rice simmer for 20 minutes. Allow rice to rest, covered for 10 minutes before using.
  2. Coarsely chop the cleaned mushrooms.
  3. Heat one tablespoon of oil over a medium pan adding the mushrooms, garlic, and shallots first. Add salt and grated ginger. Stir fry for three minutes or until shallots are translucent.
  4. Add the leeks, water chestnuts, soy sauce, sesame oil, and water. Stir fry for 2 minutes or until leeks are bright green yet tender. Now add in the cooked rice and the peas. Stir until everything is well mixed. Take off the stove and set aside.

For dumpling:

  1. Dust a clean surface lightly with flour. Remove wonton skins from package and gently flex them in between your hands to loosen them up.
  2. Stack 4-5 skins together and place on floured table. Using the cookie cutter cut the stack into circles. Repeat until all square wrappers have been shaped into circles.
  3. Sprinkle a bit of flour on each circle wrapper as it is finished to keep it from sticking to surfaces.
  4. If the cooking steamer is metal, line the bottom of it with parchment paper (you may have to cut the parchment paper to fit inside your steamer). Lightly brush the paper with oil. If your steamer is made of wood, you can brush the bottom of it directly with oil.
  5. Make sure your hands are slightly moist. Take one wonton wrapper and place this in your palm. Place a tablespoon of the filling in the middle of the skin. Cup your hand around the skin while pressing down on the filling with the back of a spoon.
  6. Curl your fingers around the wonton skin, making a loose fist so that your thumb and middle finger meet at the tips. Gently squeeze the wonton closed while pressing down on the top of the filling so it does not spill out.
  7. Repeat this process until all wrappers are filled in. Place them in the steamer an inch apart from each other.
  8. Pour enough water into a pot or wok so that water sits one inch below the bottom of your steamer basket. Place steamer with siu mai into pot and bring to a boil.
  9. Steam for 8-10 minutes or until middle of dumplings yield when poked with a fork or chopstick, meaning they are fully cooked through.
  10. Serve and enjoy on its own or with other dim sum offerings.

* BT Tip: For a pop of orange in your siu mai you can substitute minced carrots for the peas.

73 replies »

  1. What a wonderful post! A reminder of how we, Asians, are so closely tied to the food we make and eat! (not that I have anything against instant ramen – they have saved me many a time!)
    Love the photos, the story-telling, and the wonderful vegetarian recipe – I haven’t had a siu mai in years (on account of being vegetarian), so I will make me some soon!

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