Small Eats

In line with his own ritual of uncovering culinary delights, chef and author John Thorne revels in the flavour, history, and community of Chinese Dumplings.

© Stewart Butterfield

The Gohyang Korean Restaurant shares one of three tiny storefronts in the shabbiest, mini-est minimall on a highway lined with them, hidden behind a curve in the road, its signage (in Korean) blocked by a telephone pole. Although we knew it existed, we had driven past it countless times without ever spotting it. When we finally did, I made an immediate U-turn, pulled into its eight-slot parking area, and sat there staring disbelievingly at the place. The proprietor looked out the window at us, his face expressing very similar sentiments. My wife Matt and I were on our way to an appointment, but we decided to come back for lunch.

When we returned, about half past one, no cars were in the lot and the interior seemed very dark. Still, the Open sign was lit, so hesitantly we went in. We looked around the empty room. To our left, demarcated by a short wooden divider, was a raised floor banquet area where several foot-high tables were turned up against the wall. Before us and to our right were ordinary tables and booths, made of varnished pine, not one set for dining. Suddenly, a young man scrambled to his feet. He had been napping on the floor on the banquette cushions, behind the wooden divider. In sleepy-eyed confusion, he opened his mouth, shut it, and fled into the kitchen.

A moment later, a crowd of welcomers appeared, settling us in, laying the table, bringing us menus and pouring us tea. We placed our order, and soon it was all before us: goon mandu (pan-fried dumplings), jopchae (stir-fried glass noodles with meat and vegetables), and eight tiny bowls of pickled vegetables, including of course, kimchi, as well as chunks of spicy potato, marinated cucumber, a Korean version of coleslaw, and threads of grated daikon tossed in a fiery dressing.

The food, although good, wasn’t memorable; what was—starting with the pot boy sleeping on the cushions—was the hominess. Not only in the sense of “like home,” but “like it is in Korea.” Our meal progressed in a succession of little surprises, from the earthenware cup of rice tea that began it to the complimentary muskmelon ice pop with which we were ceremoniously presented at its conclusion.

Bowls of pickled vegetables weren’t even mentioned in the menu but appeared magically and were instantly refilled. The plate of goon mandu held a dozen good-sized handmade, pan-fried dumplings. These, as soon as I saw them—even before I lowered the tip of one into the dipping sauce and brought it to my mouth—seized my entire attention.

As much as we’d savored dumplings, we’d never been inspired to prepare them. Like croissants, they carried with them the aura of the production line: they were something you bought, not something you made. The Gohyang’s goon mandu, however, said something quite different. The slightly uneven thickness of the wrappers showed they’d been flattened by hand. Their pleats still bore the impression of the maker’s fingers; the beef and vegetable filling was delicate yet firmly textured. They spoke so directly, so emphatically to me—You like me, then go make me yourself—that I had no choice but to listen.

As it happened, beginner’s luck was with me, and I found a recipe for goon mandu in the Korean section of The Encyclopedia of Asian Cooking. The catch was that it called for commercially made wonton wrappers—and I have had enough experience in East Asian cooking to know I wanted nothing to do with those soulless things. This started a search for the right wrapper recipe, and for this I was unwittingly launched on a voyage of culinary discovery. Goon mandu, it turns out, are the Korean version of a dumpling found all over Asia, but especially in China, where they are called chiao-tzu:

Peking is famous for its “small eats” as well as for its classic dishes. Indeed, in Peking today you can probably eat better at sidewalk stalls and cafes than at the fancy restaurants that cater to tourists. Street vendors sell fruit and wheat dumplings stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. Noodle shops abound. Chiao-tzu halls sell millions of those marvelous dumplings. They are boiled or shallow-fried without stirring, in which case they are “pot-stickers,” because the bottoms toast themselves onto the pan, becoming exquisitely crisp.    —E.N. Anderson, The Food of China

Chiao-tzu translates approximately as “three-sided (crescent-shaped) dumpling.” According to culinary historian E.N. Anderson, it originated among Central Asian nomad peoples, who unintentionally spread a taste for them during their excursions both east and west. Chiao-tzu are but one member of a family that includes “the ashak of Afghanistan, mu-mu of Tibet, Russian pelmeni, Jewish kreplachs, samosa of Arabia and South Asia, and Italian ravioli.” Anderson could have added the Japanese gyoza—which shares an identical ideogram with its Chinese sister—and, of course, goon mandu.

Chiao-tzu have become so popular among the Chinese that native food writers, when they turn to the subject, almost always strike an especially nostalgic note, as does Ken Hom, for instance, in The Taste of China:

Of the many other popular snack dishes, some of the most cherished throughout China are chiao-tzu dumplings. These are wonderful snacks which are sold boiled, fried, or less often, steamed. Filled with meats, vegetables, garlic, scallions—each region has its own touches and variations. Really a well-balanced light meal, I have eaten more of these dumplings than I care to count, and enjoyed every one.

This gives a major clue as to their popularity. Since they can be eaten as either a snack or a meal, there is often a pleasant confusion about which of the two is taking place. Settle yourself into a chiao-tzu parlor and once the heaping platter of delectable, inexpensive dumplings arrives, no one is going to tally how many you eat. As Ellen Stretcher remembers, “A mammoth plateful of them accompanied by a bowl of spicy dip sauce was a feast for the whole family. The children competed among themselves to see who could eat the most; the adults stuffed themselves without counting.”

Pleasurable enough for grownups, for children they can be ecstasy. Delighting in the moppet-size and the juiciness, they love the abandon that comes with being allowed to eat all they want. “When I was young I could eat thirty at one meal, and I never tired of them,” writes Mat Lung in The Chinese People’s Cookbook, words to which many Chinese would nod a wistful assent.

As it turns out, this festive aspect carries over into preparing chiao-tzu. It is a tradition for extended families to gather together during the Chinese New Year, in northern China especially. Men, women and children sit around the dinner table together and, laughing and gossiping, make—then eat—hundreds of chiao-tzu.

Ordinarily, Chinese rules of propriety would frown on such behavior, so it is important that the character of chiao-tzu undermines these rules. It does so via another aspect of their slippery identity, this time regarding culinary status. As happens in all cuisines, the Chinese bestow various rankings to their primary cooking methods. Boiling, the most common, sits at the bottom of the totem pole, steaming clings to the middle, and frying roosts at the top. Not only are chiao-tzu prepared by all three methods, but, in the form popularly known as pot stickers—kilo-teh—they are both boiled and fried, acquiring, as Irene Kuo puts it, “a dual texture: they are fluffily soft on top and crunchy-crisp on the bottom.”

This duality brings together two qualities of great importance in Chinese gastronomy—the two basic textures, tsuei (crisp, crunchy) and nun (soft and tender)—even as plain boiled or steamed, chiao-tzu have already united the two basic foodstuffs, fan (the all important starch) and t’sai (the civilizing, i.e., “Chinese-making,” filling, the deliciously consonant melding of various tidbits).

They also unite the two flavor elements, hsien (sweet, natural)—the dumpling itself—and nung (potent, heady, concentrated)—the salty, tangy dipping sauce. Such auspicious harmony can only help in drawing everyone—including distant, sometimes poor relations and household servants—into the family circle to participate in the New Year ritual of their making. This is why chiao-tzu is the one dish that Chinese men and little children know how to prepare.

Sometimes, the more you learn about a dish, the less you feel inclined to make it. You become intimidated: you become confused; you find your interest to be all worn out. But with these dumplings, the opposite happened. As I read, I slowly began to realize that the resonant hominess of the Gohyang’s goon mandu resided in the nature of the dumplings themselves. Goon mandu, chiao-tzu, gyoza—the distinctions between them are interesting, but what is essential is what they have in common. Their tastiness and ease of making means that their time-consuming preparation invites participation, and, with everyone gathered around the table, the feast has, without their knowing it, already begun.