Amy Tan and the Breath of a Wok

This month’s Wok Wednesdays recipe is Amy Tan’s family’s jiao-zi, the famous Beijing boiled pork-and-cabbage dumplings that are beloved for Chinese New Year, birthdays and dumpling parties. I have been thinking a lot about the amazing experience of making jiao-zi and guotie (potstickers) with Amy Tan and her sisters, which was certainly one of the highlights of researching The Breath of a Wok. 

Once the dumplings are formed place them on a sheet of parchment paper lightly dusted with flour.

How I came to make dumplings with Amy Tan is a funny tale of fate.  Before The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen was published, my editor (and friend) Janice Easton-Epner consulted me about whom we should ask to write blurbs for the book. It was my first cookbook, and I had no idea who might be willing to give me a quote for the back of the jacket. When I didn’t answer, Janice sensing my insecurities said, “Think big! In your wildest dreams, who would you want to write a blurb?” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Well, how about Amy Tan, Ken Hom, and Paula Wolfert?!” I was kidding, but to my surprise Janice replied, “O.K., why not?”

She sent out the advance copies and I immediately started fretting about what we would do if no one replied. To my great relief, just a few days later we received incredible blurbs from Ken Hom and Paula Wolfert. The art department put the finishing touches on the dust jacket design and I was in heaven—I couldn’t wait for my first book to be born!

Then I came down with the flu. I remember I was miserable, lying in bed with a fever, when Janice called to tell me she had unbelievable news. She’d received an email from Amy Tan. Amy’s assistant, having sorted her mail, had handed Amy my book galley, thinking it might be of interest. It more than caught Amy’s attention, but for a strange reason: She had had a great-aunt named Grace Young who fancied herself a gifted cook. When Amy was a child, Great-Aunt Grace often prepared meals for Amy’s family. The truth is that Great-Aunt Grace was a terrible cook—which didn’t keep her from fantasizing that one day she’d publish her very own cookbook. Looking at my manuscript, Amy had the crazy thought that her Great-Aunt Grace had come back from the dead to finally write her dream cookbook! Once Amy got over the shock, she looked at the book, fell in love with it, and wrote this blurb: “A cookbook of family secrets that the Kitchen God’s Wife would have been proud to write for her daughter.” I remember screaming into the phone to Janice. Surely it was a cosmic sign that The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen would have an auspicious life. What were the chances of Amy Tan knowing anyone named Grace Young, let alone having a Great-Aunt named Grace Young!

A few years later, when I started researching The Breath of a Wok, I was contemplating whom to interview for the book. I immediately thought of Amy Tan, and, channeling Janice, I asked myself, “Why not?” I emailed Amy with my request, and was amazed and thrilled when she promptly replied that not only would she do it, three of her sisters and their husbands would join in! Again I let out a little scream of joy. When the day arrived, we gathered in Amy’s loft kitchen and the sisters and brothers-in-laws formed a lively but disciplined production line, turning out beautifully formed jiao-zi and guotie that we gobbled up as soon as they came out of the wok.

My friend Alan Richardson took many beautiful photographs of the Tan sisters making dumplings but there are no photographs of Amy and me. Nowadays I would have taken a selfie with her, and countless videos of the cooking session. But I do have a precious keepsake of that day: I had brought along my first-edition copy of The Joy Luck Club, which Amy graciously signed with a wonderful inscription.

When I think of making jiao-zi, those ethereal, delicious homemade dumplings, I think of that wonderful day with the Tan sisters, and also of my friend Janice and the lesson she taught me: Dream Big!

PS: Years later, someone sent me a copy of Great-Aunt Grace Young’s self-published cookbook. Amy had mentioned to me that great auntie had managed to publish a little pamphlet of her recipes so I sent it to Amy. When you’re at a yard sale or thrift shop, keep your eye out for Great-Aunt Grace Young’s cookbook!

The recipe for Amy Tan’s Family’s Jiao-zi is in The Breath of a Wok. This is the variation for pan-frying the dumplings to make guotie or potstickers.


Amy Tan’s Potstickers

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
1/2 pound Napa cabbage
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound ground pork (about 1 cup)
4 tablespoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons peanut, grapeseed or vegetable oil
1/3 cup Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar

1. In a food processor, put the 2 cups of flour in the work bowl. With the machine running pour 1/2 cup cold water into the bowl and process until dough just begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. It should feel soft and pliable like pie dough. If it’s dry and crumbly, add water by the tablespoon and if it’s sticky add flour by the tablespoon. Turn onto a work surface lightly dusted with flour, and knead with lightly floured hands 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until it holds its shape firmly. Cover with plastic wrap or a slightly damp cloth and allow to rest 30 minutes.

2. Trim 1/4-inch from the stem end of the cabbage leaves. Stack a few leaves at a time and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch wide shreds, then finely chop to make about 3 cups. In a medium bowl combine the cabbage, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the sugar. In another medium bowl combine the pork, 1 tablespoon ginger, soy sauce, and rice wine. Add the cabbage and stir until well combined. Cover and refrigerate.

3. After the dough has rested, knead it on a lightly floured surface until elastic and smooth, 2 minutes. Roll the dough into an even rope about 15-inch long. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces to make 30 pieces. Roll each into a 1-inch ball. Pat the balls into plump 2-inch discs, lightly dusting them with flour. Cover all unused dough with plastic wrap or a slightly damp cloth. Using a floured rolling pin, roll back and forth over the edges of each disc, making the center slightly thicker and the edges thinner. The rounds will be about 3 1/2-inches in diameter.

4. Put 1 level tablespoon of the filling (use a little less if you’re new to making dumplings) in the center of each round. Fold the round in half to form a half moon. Pinch one end of the half moon together. Starting at this end, use your thumb and index finger to make a pleat in the top piece of the dough, and press it firmly into the bottom piece of the dough. Continue making 3 to 4 more pleats until the dumpling is almost completely closed. Press the end of the half moon together. Stand each dumpling with the rounded edge upright and pinch top edge together to re-enforce crescent shape. Put on a tray or plate lined with parchment paper and lightly dusted with flour.

You can pan-fry 12 to 14 dumplings in a wok. I only used 8 because I was making myself a snack treat.

5. To pan-fry the dumplings, heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of oil, reduce heat to medium, add dumplings sealed edges up allowing dumplings to touch. You should be able to fit about 12 to 14 dumplings. Fry the dumplings for about 1 to 2 minutes until light brown on the bottom.

6. Holding the lid close to the wok, add 1/3 cup cold water which will immediately sputter and boil. Cover with the lid, increase heat to medium-high and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Check at the 3 to 4 minute mark and if most of the liquid has evaporated add another 2 tablespoons of water.

7. After a total of 5 minutes, uncover and almost all the liquid should have evaporated. Allow to fry another minute or until the bottoms are dark brown and crisp. Transfer the dumplings to a serving plate.

8. In a small bowl combine the remaining 3 tablespoons ginger, vinegar, soy sauce and sugar. Serve dumplings with tangy ginger sauce. Store any leftover sauce covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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