Chengdu Challenge #15: Dumplings in Red Oil (Zhong Shui Jiao)

zhong's dumplings in red oil

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's dumplings in red oil

Zhong Shui Jiao lends its name to a famous chain of old-school snack shops in Chengdu serving xiao chi (little eats).

zhong's dumplings in red oil

Zhong dumplings in red oil (on the right) as part of a snack set.

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.

zhong's dumplings in red oil

A  great mother-daughter project.

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 dumplings in red oil

Not perfect, but still beautiful and tasty.

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.

zhong's dumplings in red oil

Homemade chili oil is a must for dumplings in red oil.

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 Plentywhich 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.

zhong's dumplings in red oil

Simmer dark soy sauce, sugar and spices until thick and syrupy.

zhong's dumplings in red oil

“Concocted” soy sauce, before and after. My favorite brand of both light and dark soy sauce is Pearl River Bridge.

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.

zhong's dumplings in red oil

Two sauces you should always have on hand

zhong's dumplings in red oil

Yin yang sauces

Chengdu Challenge #15: Dumplings in Red Oil (Zhong Shui Jiao)
Author: 
 
Pork dumplings adapted from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook; concocted soy sauce adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty.
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

 

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42 Responses

  1. Susan says:

    I am really loving your posts; they make me feel like I am in Chengdu. Now you will have to describe that snack set! Many thanks. You make my day.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this research. I’ve been wondering for years where the sweet background notes of the chili oil for Sichuan dumplings come from. I suspect it will make a tasty dipping sauce for more than just that.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      You are welcome! I agree about that sauce. Coming up soon is a cold chicken and noodle dish that uses the concocted soy sauce. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. sub says:

    thanks for the recipe, the dumplings looks delicious !

    a good video about the chili oil https://youtu.be/97D69SLxE-E

  4. Xianhang Zhang says:

    It’s totally worth making the wrappers! Homemade wrappers are completely different from storebought ones, they’re thicker, rougher and have more bite compared to the slippery, uniform store bought wrappers. Unfortunately, making good wrappers is such a hands on activity I don’t know if it can be taught solely through written instructions, although even average quality handmade wrappers are a completely different experience from storebought ones.

    Dumpling making tends to be more of a Northern Chinese tradition which is perhaps why your Shanghainese daughter never encountered it. In my family, dumpling making was a way of bringing people together as it’s the perfect assembly line food. The women and children would be in the kitchen making dumplings and gossiping while the men were in the dining room drinking beer and eating peanuts.

    To make the wrappers, knead bread flour and water into a dough slightly stiffer than an earlobe, then let it rest for at least an hour. Roll a fist chunk ball into a snake and then cut with a knife into chunks about as big as a gnocchi (experienced dumpling makers will tease a ball into a hoop then hand tear chunks of dough for better texture but this is extremely hard to do well). Place each chunk cut side up and flatten with your palm into a puck. Then, take a rolling pin and, for each puck, roll the pin 40% of the way up the dough and back down, then turn a quarter turn. Repeat until you get a thin circle of dough. The goal is to keep the dough slightly thicker in the center while having delicately tapered edges. With handmade wrappers, because the edges are so much thinner, the pleats of the dumpling are the exact same thickness as the center, making them cook evenly. Uniform thickness wrappers will always be a bit doughy around the pleats.

    Anyway, IMHO, homemade wrappers are worth trying at least once just to experience how different they are from machine made ones.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Yes, everyone should try once. I did. 🙂 It is definitely worth the effort to make homemade wrappers when you have time. Thanks so much for these detailed instructions. It’s a great addition to this recipe.

  5. sub says:

    you’re welcome !

    about the sweet soy sauce I found this article: http://www.tfysw.com/2013/0603/57814.html

  6. sub says:

    The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine “Concocted soy sauce” 复制酱油

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/kattebelletje/4469806304/in/photostream/

    Boil half a liter of soy sauce with 2 star anise, a caoguo (Chinese “black cardamom), 5 pieces of ginger, some fennel seeds, some Sichuan peppercorns, 2 large sliced spring onions and a handful of candy until the sauce has reduced to a syrupy black soy-like sauce . Sift the ingredients out and use the ‘laid strength soy’ as a base for sauces.

  7. sub says:

    I’ve followed this recipe: http://cookingthebooks.typepad.com/cooking_the_books/2009/12/tian-shui-mian-the-recipe.html

    I’ve added 1% of baked baking soda for the bite and a little bit of buckwheat flour for the taste.

    Making noodles is very easy and they are far better than store bought !

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for this interesting recipe. He did a lot of research to come up with what he believed to be the first recipe in English for sweet water noodles. They look fantastic, and I will definitely try it. Funny enough, the last time I was in Chengdu, about a year ago, I ran into Fuchsia Dunlop at a well-known tian shui mian restaurant. She was standing in the open kitchen behind the ladies making the noodles, taking copious notes. So I assume she will be publishing that recipe somewhere…

  8. sub says:

    Dumplings made at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine:

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      This is a fantastic video showing in detail most of the process of making Zhong dumplings. The recipe for the sauce is very similar to what I’ve given here, which makes sense, since the recipes I adapted came originally from this school. It’s great to have the visual. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  9. Marijke says:

    As I am in the South (Alabama) much of the time, I would like to ask if you can share where you buy your ingredients. When I am in Seattle I have no problem finding Asian ingredients, but here in the South it is more difficult. Thank you in advance.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      It can be difficult to find Sichuan specialty ingredients in the U.S. Some pan-Asian markets have them, and some don’t. The big Chinese supermarket chains—such as 99 Ranch on the West Coast and Texas and Great Wall Supermarket on the East Coast—surely will. The closest to you is probably Great Wall in Atlanta. When I can’t make it there, I order online from Posharp, which has the best selection of Sichuan ingredients I’ve seen online. I link directly to them on many of my ingredient pages. Good luck!

  10. Paul Winalski says:

    Thanks for posting this recipe! I’ve been trying to get that sauce right, without success, for years. My question is about the wrappers. I’ve made my own pot sticker wrappers (I believe that is what is used here) and I agree with you that it’s too much effort (except on special occasions). So what sort of store-bought round wrappers should I look for? Round wonton wrappers, or something else?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      You’re welcome, Paul! Thanks for your question. I don’t know what kind of selection you have when shopping for dumpling wrappers, but mine is not great. I usually eyeball all the candidates and pick what looks like the thinnest round wonton wrappers. This fascinating guide from my friends at The Cleaver Quarterly (http://luckypeach.com/the-guide-to-chinese-dumplings/) confirms that shui jiao are basically wontons served without the soup.

  11. Chenyun says:

    “Was it because kids don’t make dumplings in China, or because foster kids don’t make dumplings in China?”
    As someone mentioned, I think, dumping-making is more of a North Chinese tradition – it goes along with the whole wheat-based diet (not so much rice). Many-a Chinese southerner doesn’t know how to fold a 水餃 properly (fewer pleats, plumper, and upright). Hope you make many more dumplings with your daughter in the future!! (So many delicious possibilities, hehe). I’ve actually never used bread flour! At home we just use all-purpose flour and water (usually a 2:1 ratio of of grams of flour:mL of water, but we just go by feel). It’s usually made earlier that day, and then rested for a while so it is easier to manipulate and roll out (a rather leisurely affair). Any leftover dough goes towards making scallion pancakes ^..^ Actually, in my humble opinion, what convenience is gained from using store-bought wrappers is lost in the process of wrapping dumplings – using fresh dough which is naturally sticky and more elastic makes it much easier to wrap the filling. And of course there is the incomparable springy and elastic texture once you eat it…

    Your blog is encouraging me to foray into more Sichuan flavors! I’ve never quite understood the appeal of dumplings in spicy oil (I grew up eating my dumplings with straight vinegar, Shanxi laochen cu if at all possible), but as I grow older, I’m beginning to appreciate all the different possibilities of flavor that are made possible by chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn. Maybe next time I’ll have to try dumplings a new way!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you for the kind and interesting comments. I know Fong Chong ate lots of dumplings/wontons in Southern China, but perhaps her foster family didn’t make them. I know she had wonton soup at school for breakfast every day. I can’t pull that off for her here (at least not the way she remembers it), but I will give the handmade dumpling wrappers a try again, at yours and the others’ urging. 🙂

      Where did you grow up that you ate your dumplings in straight vinegar? I guess that’s typical many places in China. I’ve bought Shanxi vinegar here in the U.S., but it probably wasn’t the good stuff. Thanks so much for writing!

      • Chenyun says:

        Actually, my family is from Shanxi 🙂 the taste of Shanxi’s aged vinegar [老陈醋] is quite pungent, and may be off-putting to the unfamiliar (or shall I say, unindoctrinated?) It’s certainly more assertive than, say, Chinkiang vinegar, which is sweeter, with a less concentrated flavor. I remember that I couldn’t take Shanxi vinegar “straight” as a child, preferring to mix it with soy sauce and sesame oil. Well, I grew up, and now I can hardly bear to dilute its uniquely complex taste with anything else. Unfortunately, like many other regional or “specialty” Chinese products, many of the versions advertised under its name are dupes or low-quality products masquerading as “the real thing”. Purchasing is rather hit-and-miss, unfortunately.

        A comment on the differences between dumpling and wonton wrappers (I’m no culinary expert and only speak from my family’s experience!) The goal when making wrappers for boiled dumplings (水餃) is to make them somewhat substantial, and chewy – not “thick”, but with heft. That is why we cut each chunk from a long “rope” and roll each chunk out individually into a circle (as Xianhang described). However, when we make wontons, we will roll the dough out into a smooth, almost translucent sheet, as thin as possible, and then cut the sheet into triangles. When cooked, the wontons’ wrappers have very little heft, and are instead very light and slippery, so that they don’t overwhelm the more delicate flavor of the filling. And, unlike shuijiao, which are served “dry” and with a dipping sauce, wontons are served in soup, as everyone knows, which we flavored simply with scallions and black pepper. There’s more that separates a “shuijiao” from a “wonton” than simply the final shaping!

        I don’t know what your daughter grew up eating, but my overly long discussion hopes to demonstrate that there are a myriad of different factors that greatly affect the final product that can’t be described in a single recipe, or list of ingredients. Don’t be discouraged: the wrapper reflects the taste of the filling, the regional tradition, and how the “dumpling” is served. Which is all to say, please continue to experiment! Now, I think I will have to try these “zhong shui jiao”, since they look utterly unlike anything I have ever eaten…

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          What I love about my blog is the smart comments! Thanks for the schooling in dumplings–admittedly not my forte. I didn’t realize how different the dough procedure is for dumplings and wontons. But I do love to eat them. And now I have to get my hands on some good Shanxi aged vinegar!

  12. Swetha Chellappa says:

    OMGGGG!! This is my husband’s most favourite Sichuan dish (atleast one of his top favourites 🙂 Twice cooked pork being the other ).I’ve always wondered how to get the sauce right and your recipe looks exactly like the one we have at our local Sichuan restaurant 🙂
    Would you have a recommendation about the filling for a vegetarian version of this dumpling ? I usually make vegetarian momos (dumpling’s North East Indian cousin,haha) but have always wanted to make vegetarian dumplings. Thank you!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I love that you’re so excited about this! I hope it tastes just like your restaurant’s. I too prefer my dumplings vegetarian, but I don’t really have a specific recipe. I like cabbage or bok choy, bean sprouts and, particularly, shitake mushroom in mine. I need to work out a recipe for that.

      Thank you for introducing me to momos! I’ve been to India, but I did not run across this north India/Nepal dumpling. Are they generally spicy in any way? Wiki says they are normally served with a tomato-based chutney. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momo_(dumpling) Yum! The whole world loves a dumpling. 🙂

      • Swetha Chellappa says:

        Oh,It would be great if you worked out a recipe for vegetarian dumplings! 🙂
        The momos themselves are not spicy (Nepali/North East Indian food is generally not as spicy as food from other parts of India,I think) but the chutney could be spicy,depending on who cooks it.I usually make mine a little spicy,as both my husband and I love spicy food 🙂

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Thanks, Swetha!

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Hi Swetha,

          I finally had my first momos this week! There’s a great Nepalese restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens, NY, so I had them there and loved them. I especially like that the dipping sauce of choice for these dumplings is pure chili sauce. This restaurant, Gakyizompe, serves both a mild and a hot chili sauce on the side. For that reason they do remind me a bit of Sichuan dumplings in chili oil. Thanks for inspiring me to search them out!

          • Swetha Chellappa says:

            Oh that is wonderful! I am so glad you tried them 🙂 yes,I am a big fan of the dipping sauce too !

  13. Glenn says:

    Thanks for posting this fantastic, one-of-a-kind recipe. My wife and I lived and worked in Chengdu 25 years ago and we still miss the Zhong Shui Jiao we used to get not far from Tianfu Square. I followed your recipe for the concocted soy sauce . . . and bam! . . . our taste buds are right back in Chengdu. The flavor is unique and unmistakeable. We can’t seem to get enough of this flavor. Another Chengdu street food I still miss is guo kui, the round fried/baked bread stuffed with savory fillings. There is a recipe online for guo kui but it’s not the Sichuan style that we used to enjoy. Are you familiar with any recipes for that? Thanks again for your great posts.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Glenn,
      So happy that this recipe satisfied your food cravings and memories. It does taste like Sichuan.

      I too love guo kui! I wonder if we are thinking of the same thing, since lots of things seem to have that name. The ones I had were like a sandwich, with a small pita-like bread, but more thin and crisp, stuffed with a meat and “salad.” So good! None of my cookbooks have a recipe for that. Though I did watch one shop make it. They puffed the small pieces of dough up quickly on a hot flattop surface, split it open, mixed the meat, veggies and sauce to order, and stuffed the bread. Is that what you’re thinking of?

      • Taylor Holliday says:

        Follow-up from Glenn:

        What you describe is a little different from the guo kui we would buy on the streets near Sichuan University. Here’s a link that shows what we used to see:

        Here’s a link to a guo kui recipe that uses lamb and cumin, but in Chengdu the meat was pork:
        http://www.baketard.com/blog/2012/9/14/guo-kui.html

        The paste-filled dough would first be fried on a hot flattop surface then put into a large tandoor-like oven to make them crispy.
        http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2010/02/griddled-and-baked-guo-kui.html

        I’ve been experimenting at home making these with only so-so results. I think lard may need to be incorporated into the dough to get the right crispiness and crunch. They were a great snack to eat on the go.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Glenn,

          I have had that version too! My Sichuan colleague called it guo kui, though it is called Juntun Pancake in the Sichuan culinary university’s cookbook. You are correct that the recipe does in fact call for lard in the dough. There’s a street bordering one side of People’s Park that is lined with these guo kui stands. I like to take one into the park’s teahouse to go with my tea. Perhaps I’ll try the school’s recipe–though it directs: “Fry the pancakes till golden brown on both sides and then bake in a coal stove till crispy.” Hopefully a Western gas oven will do. 🙂

          • Taylor Holliday says:

            I should have had Fong Chong translate before I answered. Juntun “pancake” is juntun guo kui in Chinese.

  14. Cameron Hensley says:

    You are seriously my new best friend! I lived in Chengdu for a year, studying at Sichuan University right at Wangjianglu and Jiuyanqiao. I have been missing the food so much! I just went to our local Asian market and started stocking up on everything I need. I cannot wait to try some of these recipes and let you know how it turns out

  15. Kellie Holm says:

    My favorite restaurant serves these dumplings and I wanted to attempt to make them at home. Your recipe is AMAZING!!!! Mine turned out better than the restaurant. I had to buy store bought chili oil so next time I will try your recipe. Thanks for the recipe!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I love this! So glad you were able to capture–and improve–the taste! Thanks for letting me know.

  1. June 10, 2015

    […] Chengdu dumplings in red chilli oil – The Mala Project […]

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