Dumpling knots (mian geda in Mandarin) are a staple in this house, a dish I've been cooking and adapting for almost a quarter of a century (!!).
This version of the dish is basically a Sichuanese pork and dumpling stew. As a recipe it's near perfect.There are few ingredients (Sichuan peppercorns and crushed dried red chili being the most "exotic"), it requires minimal prep time, and the result delivers big, satisfying flavors with a high comfort quotient.
I first encountered dumpling knots on a wiltingly humid afternoon in August 1984, shortly after I moved to Chengdu. On my second or third day in town a grad student friend from the history department took me to a shed with two rickety wooden tables and a big cauldron of soup set over a charcoal-fired brazier by the entrance. We were served large bowls of broth packed with bits of pork, lengths of pea vine and uneven knots of dough about half the size of my thumb. At the table we added spoonfuls of chili oil and sprinklings of ground Sichuan peppercorn. The pasta was rough-textured and chewy, manna to a noodle lover.
Though that meal made a big impression I never went back. I was in a fog in those early days, everything new and confusing and overwhelming. I had no idea where the shop was, and I didn't remember to ask. Each day in Chengdu brought scads of unfamiliar, delicious dishes, outrageously good meals. Dumpling knots receded to the back of my mind.
It was 18 months before I ate them again -- in Michigan -- when I prepared the dish from a recipe in a Sichuan cookbook my mother-in-law-to-be gave me. I fell right back in love with dumpling knots all over again. I've been making the dish, often, ever since.
In the intervening years I've adapted this recipe so much -- subsituting one ingredient for another, adding Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies in at the beginning, increasing the amount of cabbage so that it resembles more a stew than a thick dumpling soup -- that it bears scant resemblance to its original form. But I have to give credit and high praise to Ellen Schrecker, the author of Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook. Dumpling knots are not the only gem in that volume, which is worth seeking out for its home-style dishes that always remind me of those early years of simple eating and big flavors in Chengdu.
Makes about 4 servings (when it's just the two of us I halve the dumpling recipe)
Think of this dish as pork, cabbage, and dumpling stew with Sichuan flavors. The original recipe calls for much less cabbage, cloud ear mushrooms instead of oyster mushroom, and boneless pork. I like the way the additional extra cabbage thickens the soup and the oyster mushrooms and bone-in pork (I use short ribs) flavor the broth. You could certainly go with more meat, or less, or use a different mushroom (or add some slivers of dried shiitake) or skip the mushrooms altogether. What is essential is the chili oil and ground Sichuan peppercorns to add punch at the end -- and black vinegar, for those who like a bit of sourness.
The dumpling technique is super simple and will be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who's made spaetzle. Just be sure not to overwork the dough and to keep the dumplings small, certainly no bigger than the first third of your forefinger.
This stew-soup keeps well and the flavors really intensify with an overnight in the fridge.
2 Tbsp peanut oil or other cooking oil
Optional: about 5 dried red chilies, snipped in half and 1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns
8 scallions (white plus a couple inches green part), cut into 1-inch lengths
.3 kilos (about 9-10 ounces) pork ribs, preferably cut into short lengths (substitute boneless pork if you prefer)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 large head cabbage, shredded
2 handfuls of fresh oyster mushrooms, cleaned and torn into largish pieces (or left whole if small) -- leave the stems on if you like
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup water (approximately)
4 scallions, white part only, thinly sliced
4 tsp sesame oil
To place on the table, for diners to add as they wish:
sandy chili oil (see "recipe" below), ground Sichuan peppercorns, black vinegar, and soy sauce
- Heat a wok or large heavy Dutch oven, Le Creuset, etc over high heat. Add the oil and swirl it around the pan, then throw in the Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies, if using. Stir-fry for 20 seconds or until the chilies start to color. Do not let them burn. Add the scallions and stir-fry another 30 seconds.
- Add the pork ribs and stir-fry until the pink color disappears, then add the soy sauce and stir-fry for another minute.
- Add the cabbage and mushrooms and stir-fry until the cabbage is wilted, 4-5 minutes. Add water to just barely cover the meat and vegetables and bring to a boil. Partially cover the pan, reduce the heat to a medium simmer, and cook until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. (At this point you could turn the stew off and leave it for a couple hours, or refrigerate it overnight and reheat it, before adding the dumplings.)
- In the meantime, prepare the dumpling dough: in a medium bowl mix the flour, salt, and water together with a fork until the dough is blended and as free of lumps as possible. The dough should be very sticky with a tiny touch of liquidity; it should barely move, slowly and sludgily, when the bowl is tipped.
- When the meat is done add the dough to the simmering liquid, either by tipping the bowl and "grabbing" a bit of dough at the edge with two chopsticks or even a fork and dunking it in the bubbling liquid to dislodge it -- or by dipping up some dough with a spoon and using another spoon to dislodge it directly into the liquid. Be sure not to make the dumplings too big (though they needn't all be exactly the same size) -- no more than the first joint of your forefinger. Do not try to push the dumplings into the liquid right away --- let them float on top until you're finished with the batter, then replace the lid and let them cook for a minute or two. At that point, gently stir them under and into the stew. Let the dumplings cook for at least ten minutes.
- In the meantime, divide the chopped scallions between four bowls and drizzle each with a teaspoon of sesame oil.
- When the stew is ready ladle it into the bowls, on top of the scallions and oil. Serve and let diners add chili oil, ground Sichuan peppercorn, black vinegar, and soy sauce to taste.
Sichuan-style Sandy Chili Oil -- La Jiao
A Sichuan pantry essential, this chili sauce/oil takes many forms. This is the simplest. Make a heap -- it keeps forever (in Malaysia's humidity I keep mine in the fridge) and if you're a chili hound you may soon find yourself drizzling it on scrambled eggs and adding it to salad dressings. The heat of your chilies will determine the potency of the oil.
1/2 cup ground dried chilies, preferably Sichuanese
1 cup peanut oil (preferred) or other chili oil
- Place a small pan over low heat and add the oil. Slowly heat the oil. Meanwhile, have the dried chilies ready in a jar, measuring cup, or other heatproof container that will hold both them and the oil.
- Watch for the surface of the oil to begin to shift -- not boil! Test its readiness my dropping in a flake or two of chili -- it should sizzle, move about, and give off a little red color. If it blackens the oil is too hot -- turn off the heat and let it cool down.
- When the oil is ready pour it over the chilies. Stir with a chopstick to make sure all the chilies are exposed to the oil. Leave aside, uncovered, to cool completely. Then cover and store in a cool dark cupboard or in the fridge (if storing in the fridge let the oil come to room temperature before using).
Note: A commenter on the EatingAsia Facebook page says his family makes another version, also with pork, mushrooms and cabbage but in a tomato-based broth. Makes me wonder how many types of mian geda are out there. Does your family make it? Leave a comment!