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Meal in a Pinch

Local dumpling doyennes share their secrets

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From Georgian khingali to good old American chicken with Bisquick “dumplin’s,” nearly every culture has a take on the dumpling. So why do our minds tend to dig to China when we hear the word?

To understand the enduring appeal of Chinese potstickers — or jiaozi in Mandarin — I met with two of Vermont’s top dumpling makers to learn the secrets of the craft. One, Hong Yu, sells her wares from the Hong’s Chinese Dumplings cart on Church Street. The other, cooking-memoir author and teacher Linda Furiya, works with retailers to find markets for her frozen version. They may not have much in common, but both women learned their skills in China.

Yu, 51, arrived in Burlington in 1996, having recently closed her “very small dumpling house” in her native Harbin, a northeastern city with a strong Russian heritage and a proclivity for exotic seafood. When I join her at her cart in front of Borders, she is wearing a velvet jacket and geometric-print scarf. Her straight dancer’s posture and elegantly tied-back hair give her the air of a Chinese Catherine Deneuve, in jarring contrast to her hands-on vocation.

After shaking my hand, Yu instructs me to rub my hands with Lysol 4-in-1 disinfectant wipes from her economy-sized tub, then rinse in the tiny sink installed in her cart, which she purchased from another Chinese ex-pat nearly a decade ago. Its every crevice is crammed with plates, utensils and plastic bags. Besides the sink, the small work area includes a couple of burners and a cramped, foil-covered counter where Yu rolls out the dough for her cooked-to-order dumplings. Despite the ever-present layer of flour — even her black canvas chair is white in places — Yu’s liberal use of the disinfectant wipes indicates she’s serious about health concerns.

Yu insists that I try one of her chicken-and-cheese dumplings before I make my own. I end up eating three of the fist-sized hot pockets.

As Yu puts it, “My dumplings are a little bigger for American appetites. They just want bigger, bigger, bigger.” American proclivities explain the very existence of her chicken-and-cheese creations, as well. “A lot of Americans no like pork,” she says. To satisfy her customers, Yu concocted a filling of chicken with scallions, sesame and ginger, but for the fatty creaminess that poultry alone can’t provide, she threw in tiny cubes of cheddar. The result? An only-in-Vermont hit.

“I’ve been making dumplings since I was a tiny little girl,” says Yu. It shows in her easy, matter-of-fact style. She speedily mixes what she calls a “flour dough,” describing the necessary texture as “not too hard and not too soft.” Yu rolls the finished mixture into a long, thin log, then pulls off inch-long pieces as if she were making gnocchi. Each of these will become a dumpling. Using a tiny wooden rolling pin, she flattens one end, rolling only from the ball to the heel of her hand. She holds the other end with her other hand to stretch the dough to the appropriate size and thickness, but leaves a chubby pocket at the center to prevent tearing.

Yu instructs me to make an O shape with my hand, then deposits the dumpling skin there with its plump middle in the hole. I take the wooden spoon sitting in the chicken-and-cheese mixture she has prepared and carefully place a portion in the dough.

“I like to put more, so more taste,” says Yu. When a dumpling is overfull, she merely pulls the crimps a little tighter when closing it. This process begins at the center and moves outward until the pastry is completely sealed. After my first couple of tries on my own, Yu smiles. “Yeah, you so smart! When I started I made ugly. Look how beautiful!”

Yu, who currently sells her dumplings only during the warm months, says, “Every day I eat dumplings. When it’s winter and I’m not here, I miss it.” An American citizen for eight years, she hopes one day to open a small dumpling house in Burlington, noting, “Obama gives small businesses money.”

While Yu toils on the street, Furiya makes her vegetarian Yum Dragon Dumplings — which are sold at local specialty food stores — in her comfortably appointed home kitchen. A kitschy statue of Mao Tse Tung stands at a window overlooking her garden, holding Furiya’s dishwashing gloves over his porcelain head.

While Yu’s work space is caked in at least a day’s worth of flour and bits of dough, Furiya’s black granite countertop is pristine. Nonetheless, she doesn’t have the necessary setup to incorporate meat in the products she sells. (The state has rigorous standards for home kitchens used to prepare food for commercial purposes: Yu briefly had to close her cart last summer while she obtained certification for the kitchen where she prepares fillings.)

According to Furiya, a more lived-in kitchen is perhaps more authentic. She describes the cooking school she attended for six months in Shanghai as “a very dirty facility” — one where “85 percent of the people in the room were smoking” and the teacher was “chain-smoking throughout the entire class,” says Furiya, who was pregnant at the time.

In her six years living in China, the Indiana native took the opportunity to learn traditional arts such as wushu as well as cooking. At the vocational cooking program, she says, knife skills were the top priority. “We learned a lot about how to cut vegetables into attractive-looking things, and squid into squiggle designs,” she explains. While dumpling making was taught only as a weekend elective, Furiya says she managed to master numerous dim sum dishes — including the xiaolongbao, which she calls “basically, the known dumpling for Shanghai.”

Translated as “little dragon dumpling,” the xiaolongbao contains more liquid than your average pork pastry. Though gelatin (which melts during steaming) is often added to create an explosion of hot soup with the first bite, Furiya’s safer version relies on water and lots of pork fat. To seal in the moisture, she tightly winds the skin in a circle of pinches around the top.

Why the name? “It’s supposed to be like dragon meat,” Furiya only half jokes. “They’re a very powerful creature, supposedly. [The Chinese] eat things because it’s going to give them virility or strength.” (The association with health and hardiness could come from the ginger found in many Chinese dumplings: “My family always eats it so the body is powerful and hot,” Yu explains.)

At cooking school, Furiya learned that the secret to creating the perfect dough is “to just coat the beads of water [with flour], ’cause otherwise it just turns into a dry little pile,” she says. She also learned to make a filling not terribly different from the one her Japanese mother used in gyoza, that country’s adaptation of the Chinese dumpling.

Furiya, who teaches classes in crafting Asian foods such as fresh tofu, tempura udon dishes and dim sum, says she finds ways to make seemingly complex skills manageable — for instance, forming the tiny crimps on the slightly larger-than-thumb-sized xiaolongbao. Most steps in dumpling making require no utensils. Furiya recommends students buy wooden dowels from craft stores to use as rolling pins — no trip to Chinatown necessary.

Even with her expert guidance, my xiaolongbao are not as classically attractive as my more simple folding efforts at Yu’s. “I can’t tell which are mine and which are yours,” says Furiya. I can. The fat, blobby ones are mine; the refined ones are hers.

They are all, however, delicious. Eaten in one pop to prevent spillage, the juicy “dragons” have a subtle ginger-sesame flavor heightened by the addition of Shaoxing wine. Furiya says these don’t differ much from any dumplings you’d find in China, since recipes endure for centuries. “They don’t think about changing it,” she says. “If you do, you’re a rebel, and we don’t want any rebels.”

Furiya keeps busy writing for the San Francisco Chronicle when she’s not teaching, running her business, or raising her son and three dachshunds. She briefly worked as the dumpling maker at Burlington’s A Single Pebble last year, before deciding to focus full-time on her own brand.

Hot off a street cart, frozen and reheated, or made at home (see sidebar), dumplings seem to be the perennial Chinese finger food. Yu claims to eat them daily, and Furiya says that, when given the opportunity, her 6-year-old son scarfs down little else. Sure, frying has something to do with it. (Both Yu and Furiya simulaneously fry and steam their dumplings by adding water and covering the pan.) But Furiya says the secret is inside: “When you make it right, the pork you use is almost white. When it’s not fatty, it’s not fun.”

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