Chengdu Challenge #15: Dumplings in Red Oil (Zhong Shui Jiao)
It’s All About the Sauce~~
If you’ve ever had dumplings in red oil at a real Sichuan restaurant then you know it’s all about the sauce. While every Chinese cuisine can claim a wonton, jaozi or siu mai of its own, only Sichuan floats its famous shui jiao in a sweet-hot special sauce. As such, it kind of blows all other dumplings out of the water.
It’s hard to guess exactly what’s in that special sauce, besides chili oil, but you know it when you taste it. You also know you can’t just throw some soy sauce, vinegar and store-bought chili oil together and get the same effect. No, it’s a little—but just a little—more complicated than that.
Zhong Shui Jiao, or Zhong’s boiled dumplings, gets its name from the street food vendor in Chengdu who created it some hundred years ago. It is part of the family of snacks—dumplings, noodles, small plates—specific to Sichuan called xiao chi, or little eats.
Zhong shui jiao is a crescent dumpling, “shaped like a first quarter moon,” according to Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English. The classic version of Zhong’s creation is made from a round dumpling wrapper, folded in half and filled with a simple minced pork, but you can also use different fillings and/or shape them as wontons—wontons in chili oil is what you often find in the U.S. Or you can even buy them readymade! Remember, it’s all about the sauce.
Even though the sauce is the star, the better the dumpling the better the dish of course. I made jiaozi according to Mrs. Chiang’s recipe, just increasing the ginger. I did not make the wrappers myself because, well, life is just too short and it takes forever. The wrapping itself takes a while, so that is where you want to enlist some help, perhaps making it a family affair as in China. (Though my daughter never made one dumpling in 11 years in China. Was it because kids don’t make dumplings in China, or because foster kids don’t make dumplings in China?)
Zhong’s special sauce is actually a combination of two special sauces: a chili oil with flakes and a “concocted” soy sauce. Both of these you’ll need to make yourself rather than buy. I’ve already gone on at length about the joys of chili oil. You can find my basic recipe using just chilies and oil here. Or my fancy recipe for Crispy Shallot Chili Oil here. If you decide to go the store-bought route, try Lao Gan Ma’s Spicy Chili Crisp, even though it doesn’t really contain enough oil for this purpose. See my homage to LGM here.
For the other must-have ingredient, the special soy sauce, you start with Chinese dark soy sauce, which is thicker and darker than “light,” or normal, soy sauce and has a distinct molasses taste from added sugar. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, and Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English was no help, because it simply calls for “concocted soy sauce” without explaining what it is or how to concoct it.
My only cookbook that has the recipe is Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, which calls it Sweet, Aromatic Soy Sauce. Basically, it is dark soy sauce simmered with sugar and Chinese spices—star anise, fennel, Sichuan pepper, cassia bark, etc.—until it is syrupy and fragrant.
Once you have the two sauces—which will both keep quite some time—it’s just a matter of mixing it to your desired proportions to create Zhong’s special sauce, generally about 2:1 concocted soy sauce to chili oil with flakes. The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine adds a bit of MSG, and Fuchsia adds a bit of sesame oil. I don’t think it needs either. Traditionally, Zhong’s dumplings are topped with fresh minced garlic and perhaps roasted sesame seeds. And that’s it! Dumplings in red oil, in your own home.
- Concocted Soy Sauce (makes about ⅔ cup)
- ⅓ cup Chinese dark soy sauce
- ⅔ cup water
- 5 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2-inch piece of cinnamon or cassia bark
- 1 star anise
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and smashed
- Pork Dumplings (makes about 60)
- 2 packages round dumpling wrappers
- 1 pound ground pork
- 15 scallions, minced
- 3 tablespoons ginger, minced
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 4 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1 egg
- Chili Oil (see recipes on The Mala Project)
- Minced garlic
- Toasted sesame seeds
- Make the concocted soy sauce by combining all of its ingredients in a small saucepan and bringing to a boil. Once at a boil, lower heat and summer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. It will reduce and become a bit syrupy. Allow to cool, then strain into a container.
- Prepare dumpling filling by mixing pork, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, Sichuan pepper and egg in a large bowl, stirring to combine thoroughly.
- Remove dumpling wrappers from package, but keep them covered with a damp paper towel so they don't dry out as you wrap. Have a small bowl of water nearby. Take a single dumpling wrapper and, using your fingertip, wet the edges all the way around the dumpling, which will help it seal. Put 1½ teaspoon pork filling in the center of the wrapper, fold edges to meet and seal tightly. A simple seal will do, or you can pleat the edges along one side for a fancier look. Sit dumplings aside under a damp paper towel until you have wrapped them all. (At this point, you can freeze a portion of the dumplings if you like, to be freshly cooked at a later date.)
- Bring a large pot of water to a full boil. Put 10 to 15 dumplings into the water, or as many as will comfortably fit in your pot without crowding the dumplings. Using the tried-and-true Chinese method for cooking dumplings, wait for the water to return to a full boil and then pour in enough cold water to completely stop the boil. Wait for the pot to return to a boil, then repeat the process, adding enough water to stop the boil. After the dumplings return to a boil for the third time, the dumplings are done! (Though do test one to make sure. I learned three times in Sichuan, but Mrs. Chiang actually returns the dumplings to boil a fourth time.)
- Ladle dumplings into individual serving bowls and top with a generous amount of the concocted soy sauce and the chili oil with flakes, generally in a 2:1 ratio. Garnish with a small amount of minced garlic and toasted sesame seeds. Serve hot.