It may be perpetuating a stereotype created by Crazy Rich Asians, but Wex really loves his dumplings. Whenever we’re too tired to whip up a meal at home, Wex would inevitably suggest dumplings. It makes economical sense to make them at home, but what pushed me to get into a dumpling-making groove was a lack of good Chinese restaurants where we live, especially after we made the move to rural Victoria. Over the years of making gyozas and wontons at home, I’ve garnered a tidy bag of tricks that guarantees a flavorful, juicy filling every time. Warning: nerdy food science write-up ahead.
Prawns are a common ingredient in Chinese dumplings as they break up the textural monotony of the meat patty within. The ratio of prawns to minced meat depends on the type of dumpling you’re making – har gao is made purely with prawns, and sui gao leans towards having a higher prawn-meat ratio than wontons.
I love ordering prawns at Chinese restaurants as they always come large and crunchy. This is attributed to a technique known as velveting, which Gerald has previously written about on this site. Velveting (shang jiang in Chinese, literally ‘coat with slurry’) refers to the process of marinating meat or seafood in a cornstarch slurry.
The typical ingredients in a velveting marinade include egg whites, baking soda and cornstarch. The alkalinity of egg whites and baking soda denatures the proteins in meat or seafood, completely changing the protein structure. This has astoundingly different results depending on the type of protein. In meat, velveting serves a tenderizing purpose and results in silky soft morsels. In prawns, the texture firms to a satisfying crunch.
Preceding the velveting step, many Cantonese chefs like to soak their meat or seafood in copious amounts of water to plump up the meat (known as chi shui, literally ‘eat water’). In the case of prawns, it is crucial to add baking soda to the water to kickstart the process of denaturation. Following the soak, the prawns are marinated in the alkaline egg white, seasonings and enough cornstarch to form a slurry. I like to cut my prawns into large chunks, about 3-4 pieces per prawn so the crunch is discernible.
Pork is another crucial ingredient in wontons. Though minced meat is called for in most recipes, I hesitate to use the mince from supermarket shelves as they can be too lean. Fat is necessary to guarantee flavour and juiciness of the wonton filling. When making har gao, which is made without pork meat, minced pork fat is mixed with the prawns to enhance the dumpling.
In the case of wontons, I recommend either mixing ground lard into shop-bought mince, or requesting for your butcher to grind a nice piece of rindless pork belly up for you. Though more fat is good, you still need a good amount of meat because it is the meat (muscle) that has myosin crucial for creating a gel that gives the filling its springiness. I wouldn’t go beyond 50%.
Many might recommend hand-chopping, as shop-bought meat does not give you any control over how finely ground the mince is. Meat that is too finely ground can be dense and compact meatballs. However, the problem with chopping meat by hand is that most people don’t chop the meat finely enough, leading to a chewy and grainy texture. For this reason, I recommend going with ground meat over hand-chopped (ask your butcher for a slightly coarser grind if the option is available).When using a high percentage of fat in your ground pork, it is especially crucial for the fat to be sufficiently chopped or ground.
Ti poh is sole fish that has been preserved by way of salting and drying, commonly used by the Teochews in Singapore. It is often sold in powder form, but I like to buy it whole. To release its fragrance, toast in a pan with a fat of your choice – lard, shallot oil, chicken oil or duck fat are all great. Once aromatic and crispy, break up into shards and grind into a fine powder. It can be quite pungent, so a little goes a long way in imparting a smoky, oceanic flavour to your wonton filling. If you live overseas, you can find it in Asian grocers, next to where they store ikan bilis (dried anchovies). It goes by a few different names, including dried sole fish, dried flounder or bian yu (flat fish). Whole fish would be in vacuum-sealed packaging while the powder often comes in little jars.
Working the meat is an important step to release myosin and activate the formation of a gel network. This helps to bind the other ingredients of your filling with the minced meat. Hand-chopping your meat is one way to do this, but if you are using shop-bought minced meat, you can throw the meat against a bowl multiple times or stir the meat vigorously with a pair of chopsticks. Some say to stir it in one direction, but honestly, I think it is an old wives’ tale because all you’re doing is lining up meat fibers within a gel network. Some recipes completely bypass the labour by using a combination of egg whites and starch to bind everything together.
Tasting the filling before assembling your wontons is key to avoiding disappointment – you can’t alter the seasonings once your dumplings are wrapped. Fry a little patty in a pan or microwave it until it is cooked. Make sure that you’re happy with the way that it tastes before wrapping.
Marinating the meat mixture might seem a hassle but it gives all the ingredients time to meld together. It also allows for the formation of a gel network, which traps fat and moisture and creates a more juicy, flavourful filling.
Water chestnuts add a refreshing crisp counterpoint to the pork and prawns. Incorporate it to the filling mixture right before wrapping as it might leach excess water into the pork, resulting in a dilution of flavour. For the same reason, when you are adding cabbage to a dumpling mixture, always make sure to salt it well and allow it to sit for awhile to draw out water. Wring in a clean towel before adding to the pork mixture.
Makes about 36
For the prawns:
200g shelled prawns
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
500g ice water
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 egg white
2 teaspoons potato starch
For pork mixture:
300g minced or hand-chopped pork, with 30-40% fat content
20g sliced black fungus, soaked till soft then drained
1.5 teaspoons salt
1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon tee poh powder (toast whole tee poh in an oiled pan and grind to powder)
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons sliced spring onions
65g water chestnuts, preferably fresh
36 wonton wrappers
Combine the prawns with salt, baking soda and ice water in a bowl. Allow to sit in the fridge for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse well to prevent any lingering bitterness from the baking soda. Pat dry between paper towels, then mix with salt, pepper, egg white and potato starch. Cover and marinate in the fridge for 2 hours.
Mix all the ingredients for the pork mixture, except the water chestnuts, together. If you are using shop-bought mince, throw the mixture against the bowl a few times or stir vigorously with a pair of chopsticks until the mixture starts to bind together. Fry up a little patty to taste and adjust the seasoning if desired. Cover and marinate for 2 hours.
Combine the prawns, pork mixture and water chestnuts and mix well to incorporate. Wrap and cook immediately. You can either drop the wontons into boiling water and simmer until they float, or deep-fry until golden and crisp. Any leftovers can be laid out on a parchment-lined tray and frozen before transferring to a ziplock bag or container.