If there’s one occasion to prepare dumplings from scratch, wrappers and all, it’s the Lunar New Year.
Everyday dumplings take on special significance for the holiday, on Feb. 12 this year: Eating the savory pleated pouches, which symbolize wealth, means good fortune for the year ahead, and slurping dessert dumplings is supposed to assure family unity.
But the more immediate reward is the process of making them: kneading and rolling the dough, filling and wrapping, pinching and sealing. It’s the sort of therapeutic project that lulls like rowing on a still lake. It takes a little physical effort, but the motions become as relaxing as rocking in a canoe.
This is especially true for the pot sticker wrappers here, which employ a softer, easy-to-work dough made with hot water. When rolled, it doesn’t spring back like cold-water dough for boiled dumplings, which is tougher and more elastic. Using hot water ensures thin wrappers that are simple to pleat, whether the dough is rolled into individual rounds or into a sheet for cutting out circles. When the pot stickers are simultaneously fried and steamed, these wrappers cook to the ideal delicate tenderness.
What goes in the dough can vary endlessly, but every combination requires balance. Savory flavors should border on salty because the wrapper subdues the mix, and the heat from ginger, pepper or chiles should tingle but not overpower. As for texture, the mix should be juicy but not watery and hold together without being dense.
This vegetable and tofu filling (which, yes, happens to be vegan) hits all the marks. Aromatic fresh greens are tossed with salt for seasoning and also to draw out their water. Liquid is wrung from tofu, too, so that it can soak up soy sauce and chile crisp and serve as a big-flavored binder for the greens and crunchy bits of celery.
But, for novices, kids or anyone, really, it may be more fun to start with dessert — in this case, tang yuan dumplings.
“Tang” means soup and “yuan” round, and the translation does little to describe their comfort and joy. These chewy balls with black sesame filling simmer in sweet ginger soup until they’re bobbing and shiny like pearls. When you scoop a dumpling with a spoonful of soup and take a bite, your teeth sink through the sticky wrapper, which yields like marshmallow to the toasty, nutty center that’s as soft as nougat. The ginger’s sharpness mellows to warmth against the rich filling.
I’ve been making tang yuan with my daughters since they were toddlers, in part because the dumplings are easy and fun to shape. Soft and forgiving, the glutinous rice flour dough kneads into a slab so smooth, it feels satiny. A pinched-off piece can be simply pressed flat with your fingers — no rolling pin needed. As the filled dough is rolled between palms, the seams disappear while the lumpy ball becomes a perfect round.
Tang yuan’s spherical shape signifies unity and the candy-like stickiness represents how family sticks together. You can eat tang yuan to wish for family closeness in the new year — and you can roll and cook them together to ensure it.