Updated: 2012-12-22 08:11
By Fan Zhen and C.J. Henderson (China Daily)
Try some naturally colored dumplings to warm your tummies on the coldest nights of the year . Photos Provided to China Daily
Spinach spicy dumplings feature a filling of eggplant, egg, sweet potato noodles and wild hot peppers.
The winter solstice is upon us, and as the deepest winter nights fall, people in North China will be cooking dumplings. But, Fan Zhen and C.J. Henderson found a place where you can feast royally.
Keeping traditions alive is never an easy thing. When it comes to a culinary convention, a lot of patience and courage is required to refine classic cooking techniques into an art. Chen Zunkai, founder of Baoyuan Dumpling House, has spent the past 16 years improving one of the most traditional of Chinese foods: jiaozi or dumplings.
Her dumplings are not the plain white doughy crescents simply stuffed with pork or lamb, but colorful ingot-shaped dumplings using more than 150 kinds of fillings.
"What I try to do is to make dumplings that have a taste of home," Chen says. "I hope every customer can taste something familiar, be they Northerners or Southerners, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, Chinese or foreign."
Chinese dumplings are believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Traditionally, they are made and eaten by people in northern China at festive occasions such as the winter solstice. To combat the year-end cold, they usually fill the dumplings with strongly flavored meats such as pork or lamb.
For Chen, her epiphany came after she noticed that there were not many choices for those who prefer lighter fillings and more nuanced flavors. Most vegetarian dumplings had a filling of only two kinds of ingredients, and not one single restaurant in Beijing had more than 10 kinds of vegetarian fillings.
"I thought I could do better," Chen says.
Baoyuan Dumpling House has certainly done it. You will not find basic meat dumplings at this restaurant. Instead, we were offered a rainbow of choices with brightly colored skins and exciting flavor combinations.
Our favorite was the purple dumplings (the color comes from red cabbage) filled with bean sprouts, minced pork, purple cabbage and crusty rice, a combination that is warm, but fresh and crunchy.
The other was a spinach-colored dumpling that hid a spicy surprise. It had eggplant, egg, sweet potato noodles and wild hot peppers in it, and although it was vegetarian, it was very satisfying, with complementary flavors and textures.
Chen says her inspiration for the dumplings come from the philosophy of classical pairing.
"Each filling is like a mini dish in itself. It's all about a match of flavors and textures." In order to bring out the layers of flavors, Chen says she first identifies the main ingredient.
"Take the lotus root and cucumber filling for example. The lotus root has this earthy woody fragrance but it disappears when mixed with other ingredients. The key is to marinate it first and then pair it with cucumber, which has similar texture and a lighter background flavor. I put the coriander in at the end to add more fragrance."
Many hours of trial and error went into the creation of these dumpling recipes. Chen tried dozens of ingredients every day after work, repeatedly pairing one with another, learning the hard way because she did not have a teacher. All the hard work pays off when she sees how her customers enjoy the dumplings.
Each dumpling is handmade, an undertaking that is time consuming, but worth the effort.
"Our Chinese New Year dumplings are made from shrimp, pork, egg and garlic chives. They are crimped by hand so there are folds for the juices to form as the dumplings cook," she says.
Chen knows there are ways her restaurant can cut corners and make the dumpling making process easier or faster, but she will not compromise on the quality.
"That's not what you would do if you were cooking for your family. You want them to taste the best you can provide. This has always been my driving force."
Chen has developed more than 40 kinds of vegetarian dumplings, while continuing to innovate and find new combinations for meat lovers.
Baoyuan also boasts an impressive menu other than their lengthy list of dumpling varieties.
The deep-fried squid is absolutely divine, with a salty, cumin-accented crust around fresh squid tentacles. The simple Chinese broccoli with garlic was also a winner, showing that great side dishes provide the necessary balance to a good meal.
During the longest evenings of the year, nothing will fill the tummy and warm the heart as a meal of juicy jiaozi. And, at Baoyuan, they are a feast for the eyes as well.