It was the popular 19th century American columnist Fanny Fern who first coined the phrase “The way to a man's heart is through his stomach” – though as Republican politician Robert Byrne retorted, "Anybody who believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach flunked geography"!
[An aside: I’ve often wondered that if the way to a man's heart really is through his stomach (and I have to say, I have my doubts), what organ do we go through to get to a woman's heart?]
I was waltzing with my friend Lixue at my Saturday evening dance class, when she asked me if I liked dumplings (it’s amazing the range of questions one has to field from some of the girls there.) Naturally, I told her I did. I mean, I’m a guy and I love my stomach. And at that self-same moment, the only recorded coherent sentence from Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria came to my mind: “I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings”.
And so it was that we decided there and then to set a date for me to be taught how to make Liaoning dumplings (for Lixue comes from this north eastern province of China which borders on the DPRK). Liaoning is famed for its food; and according to Wikipedia, Liao Cuisine is one of the eight famous cookery styles of China. Jiaozi (dumplings) and noodles form the staple foods of the area.
Before the appointed hour of her arrival, I rush out to Wumart to stock up on some of the necessaries that she has given to me as a shopping list and then do my gentlemanly duty of meeting her from the subway station and escorting her back to my place.
Alas, she is suffering from a sore throat, so before we knuckle down to the cookery lesson, I give her my own tutorial in sore-throat-manipulation: a mixture of honey, whisky and hawthorn juice, warmed up in the microwave and gargled down. This seems to do the trick and before one can say akhem akhem, she is busy chopping my prized pieces of pork fillet into a fine mince that would surely be the envy of many a butcher’s shop in the west.
While Lixue is busy hacking the poor pig into submission, it is my duty to fine chop an onion (no tears, big boy!) as well as a leek and some pak choi (that are standing in as a cabbage substitute), together with a few slivers of ginger…
and before you know it we have a dumpling mix whose aroma fills the kitchen. (It is only half an hour later that someone – mentioning no names, of course – realises that “we” forgot to add any oil to the mix; so a bottle of olive oil is extracted from the cupboard and a dollop is added. No one, we are sure, will be any the wiser.)
It is only at this point in time that Lixue admits to me that she has never made dumplings before in her life. Oh, she has seen her mother do them countless times, but she has always wondered if she could do them too – and guess whom she has chosen to be her first guinea-pig?
Now she tells me!
I quickly do some mental calculations. On the basis of what-is-the-worst-that-could-possibly-happen scenarios, I know I have enough eggs in the fridge to satisfy the most demanding of appetites, so we decide to carry on and see what we end up with. For who was it who said that it is (usually) better to travel hopefully than to arrive?
Next up, it’s play-dough time. I search my addled brain for any dough jokes I can come up with, but realise they wouldn’t translate well into Chinglish so instead I shake the flour canister (a.k.a. an old peach nectar juice bottle) as Lixue adds water and kneads the resultant dough into a ball.
The dough ball needs to “rest” a while after being pummelled into submission. Now, if you look at all the top chefs doing their cookery shows on TV, there are loads of them slurping back a few mouthfuls of beverage as they do so; so I work out this is a good time to introduce my Master Chefette to the joys of Gin and Tonic – except, of course, that this is China, so we settle for Gin and Sprite, which actually isn’t a bad substitute.
Already the thought of Liaoning Dumplings is tickling my taste buds. What is the difference between a Liaoning Dumpling and a dumpling from any other part of China, I ask her. Errr, not a lot, it would seem!
Next up I am shown the art of rolling the dough into flat discs. It looks so easy the way she turns the dough ball under the rolling pin, which goes back and forth over half the dough each time until she ends up with a perfect circle of wafer thin skins.
She picks up some of the filling and dollops it onto a skin …
and before you know it she is squeezing the skins and innards into raw dumplings.
Huh! What could be easier, thinks the Boy Wonder. As if reading my thoughts, Lixue stands back and “suggests” your favourite blogger has a go. Visions of a 1970s TV game show called The Generation Game immediately spring to mind, in which an expert shows the contestants how to do something seemingly easy-peasy and then stands back while the audience falls about laughing at the pathetic efforts of the contestants trying to remember the sequence of events – in this case flattening the dough ball, rolling the rolling pin halfway over the ball, gripping the resultant dough shape, giving it a semi turn and applying the rolling pin again and again until such time you (should) end up with a perfectly shaped disc.
I am left wondering if anyone can really tell, just by looking, which are my finished dumplings, and which ones Lixue has crafted. But by the time we have prepared 37 of the little blighters, there is not an awful lot to choose between them (he says, working on the principle that if you say something with enough conviction, there are always some people who will believe you, however much B-S is contained within your statement!)
[Time for an aside here, as I am reminded after committing the cardinal error of misplacing the chopsticks while working on the dough discs; you can place the chopsticks on top of the bowl…
or propped up against the side of the bowl…
but NEVER can you stick them up straight out of the food. It reminds the Chinese of placing incense sticks when paying respects to their ancestors, and so is extremely bad form / bad luck / bad manners should you ever do this at the table, or even when preparing Liaoning dumplings!]
The next problemette to be solved is how we are going to steam the raw dumplings. We consider using a rice cooker, before we discover there is actually a steaming pot, hidden away in one of the cupboards, which has never seen the light of day for the past nine months to my certain knowledge.
Eventually, some three hours after starting this marathon cookery lesson, it is lunch time. Lixue explains that a soy dip usually tastes better if you add some vinegar into it; and together with a sweet chilli sauce, we are ready for the off.
The looks of contentment / relief say it all. Has Lixue really never cooked a dumpling in her life before today? She assures me she really, really hasn’t. And I have to believe her.
I tell her she is welcome to come back and give me a cookery lesson again any time. But I guess that with her cooking skills, it won’t be long before some stomach other than mine points her in the direction of a yearning heart and she will finally be lost to the members of Gluttons Anonymous for ever more.