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Mama Lu's Dumpling House works overtime to meet Lunar New Year demand

Pork and napa cabbage dumplings.
Pork and napa cabbage dumplings.
Penny De Los Santos © 2009

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It's the start of lunar New Year today and in Asian homes all over the world people gather together and eat to celebrate the coming year with family, friends and a table full of food. Dumplings are a staple of the celebratory table. Reporter Sasa Woodruff stopped by a popular dumpling restaurant in Monterey Park to see what might be served up.

At Mama Lu’s Dumpling House, servers whisk plates of steamed and fried dumplings out to customers in the dining room. Demand is high, so owner Vivian Lu and her staff are making dumplings in overdrive.

The Lunar New Year is one of the busiest times for Lu and her restaurants. They start cranking up production at least a month beforehand. But this kitchen is way too hot and humid to make the dumpling dough. That's made in a cooler, drier room off-site 

Employee Jesus Albarran oversees the dough-making and he’s ready to meet dumpling demand.

"We know already that the holidays are coming in, so we prepare ourselves by making more than the other days," he said. 

Albarran grew in Monterey Park, and learned to make dumplings here two years ago. The dough for most dumplings is simple: water, flour and salt. And, Lu says, a lot of rest.

When the dough is ready, it’s rolled into a long thin rope and then cut into small, bite-sized pieces. Albarran rolls those pieces out into little flat circles to make the dumpling wrappers.

He says it’s a little like making food with his family from Mexico  .

"It reminds me a lot of homemade tortillas that we cook at home," he said. 

The dumpling wrappers are filled with meat or vegetables and then edges are pinched together, creating a half moon shape. All that’s left to do is to cook them in a steamer. 

Customers can get dumplings fresh out of the pot in the restaurant or they can buy a bag of frozen ones to cook at home. But maybe you want to make them yourself. Lu doesn’t have an exact recipe her dumplings, instead she does it by feel, look and taste. She also says to make sure to take your time. 

"Every step, you need to give enough time, like use the flour, add the water, use machine to make it, you need to make the flour very smooth, very smooth," she said. 

If you want to liven up your celebration, you can stuff a coin into one dumpling – like the coin cooked into a Mardi Gras cake. Whoever gets the dumpling with the coin is believed to have good luck in the next year. 

But the most important thing is to share with friends and family. Judging by sales at Mama Lu’s, dumplings will be on everyone's plate. 


Pork and Napa Cabbage Water Dumplings

2 cups lightly packed finely chopped napa cabbage, cut from whole leaves (about 7 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon plus scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup chopped Chinese chives or scallions (white and green parts)
2/3 pound ground pork, fattier kind preferred, coarsely chopped to loosen
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 cup Chicken Stock (page 222) or water
11/2 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon canola oil
11/2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 pound Basic Dumpling Dough (page 22)
2/3 cup Tangy Soy Dipping Sauce (page 215)

1. To make the filling, put the cabbage in a bowl and toss with the 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside for about 15 minutes to draw excess moisture from the cabbage. Drain in a mesh strainer (the cabbage could fall through the large holes of a colander), flush with water, and drain again. To remove more moisture, squeeze the cabbage in your hands over the sink, or put on a cotton kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and wring out the moisture over the sink. You should have about 1/2 cup firmly packed cabbage.

2. Transfer the cabbage to a bowl and add the ginger, Chinese chives, and pork. Use a fork or spatula to stir and lightly mash the ingredients so that they start coming together.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining scant 1/2 teaspoon salt, the white pepper, chicken stock, soy sauce, rice wine, canola oil, and sesame oil. Pour these seasonings over the pork and cabbage mixture, then stir and fold the ingredients together. Once the pork has broken up, briskly stir to blend the ingredients into a cohesive, thick mixture. There should not be any visible large chunks of pork. To develop the flavors, cover and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. You should have about 2 cups of fi ling. (The filling can be prepared 1 day ahead and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature before assembling the dumplings.)

4. In the meantime, make 16 wrappers from half of the dough. Aim for 31/4-inch-diameter wrappers (see page 24).

5. Before assembling the dumplings, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (If you plan to refrigerate the dumplings for several hours, or freeze them, lightly dust the paper with flour to avoid sticking.) For each dumpling, hold a wrapper in a slightly cupped hand. Scoop up about 1 tablespoon of filling with a bamboo dumpling spatula, dinner knife, or fork and position it slightly off -center toward the upper half of the wrapper, pressing and shaping it into a flat mound and keeping about 1/2 to 3/4 inch of wrapper clear on all sides. Then fold, pleat, and press to enclose the filling and create half-moons, pea pods, big hugs, or pleated crescents (see pages 26 to 29). Place the finished dumpling on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the other wrappers, assembling the dumplings and spacing them a good 1/2 inch apart on the baking sheet. Keeping the finished dumplings covered with a dry kitchen towel, form and fill the wrappers from the remaining dough.

6. Once all the dumplings are assembled, they can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for several hours; they can be cooked straight from the refrigerator. (For longer storage, freeze them on the baking sheet until hard (about 1 hour), transfer them to a zip-top freezer bag, pressing out excess air before sealing, and keep them frozen for up to 1 month; partially thaw, using your finger to smooth over any cracks that may have formed during freezing, before cooking.)

7. To cook the dumplings, half-fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add half the dumplings, gently dropping each one into the water. Nudge the dumplings apart with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking together and/or to the bottom of the pot. Return the water to a simmer and then lower the heat to maintain the simmer and gently cook: a hard boil can make a dumpling burst. Cook the dumplings for about 8 minutes, or until they float to the surface, look glossy, and are puffed up and a tad translucent. Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to scoop up the dumplings from the pot, a few at a time, pausing the spoon’s motion over the pot to allow excess water to drip back down before putting the dumplings on a serving plate. Cover the plate with a large inverted bowl to keep the dumplings warm.

Return the water to a boil and cook the remaining dumplings. When done, return the first batch to the hot water to reheat for a minute or two. There is no need to reboil.

8. Serve the hot dumplings immediately, placing the serving plate in the middle of the table for people to reach to or pass along. Serve the soy dipping sauce either in a communal bowl with a spoon for people to help themselves or divided up among individual rice bowls or large dipping sauce dishes. To eat, pick up a dumpling with chopsticks (you can stab it if you like) and dip or roll it in the dipping sauce. Getting an assist from a soupspoon or the rice bowl, deliver the dumpling to your mouth with the chopsticks. If there are juices inside, they’ll spill out into the spoon or bowl when you bite into the dumpling.

Reprinted with permission from Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2009. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.