My new habit is to take a cooking class when I travel, especially when I travel to a place where I like the food. So I am doing a one-on-one cooking class with an expert dumpling maker in Shanghai. And today’s dumpling is my favourite, the steamed prawn dumpling – the yummy, guilt free, even healthy, choice from years of yum-cha.
One of the statistics that surprises me is that Shanghai has an official population of 27 million, of which 18 million are Chinese and 9 million are expats. That is a lot of expats, and a lot of those expats (and locals) appear to be pretty well off. The cooking school I am at today, www.thekitchenat.com , reminds me of this because it is a luxury modern facility that definitely seems designed with the expat market in mind, and it is priced accordingly. Today I have a one-on-one lesson with expert dumpling chef Yang Xiao-Yun, made only slightly more challenging by the fact that she does not speak English and I do not speak any Chinese dialect at all.
Shopping for ingredients in Shanghai
First I go for a walk with one of the assistants to the local produce market, to gather our ingredients. Normally I love a wander around a good market, but this time, this is where it all starts to go wrong. I discover I am making a batch of prawn dumplings with 1 kilo of raw prawns, handfuls of sliced bamboo shoots, and 1 kilo of pork fat. What?…No! Prawn dumplings are delicious and light and healthy – there can not be massive amounts of solid white pork fat in them! Call me naïve (no, go on!), I have often ordered “pork & prawn” dumplings, but surely that was pork meat minced up?
It takes me a while to accept the evidence, that my beloved prawn dumplings are all solid pork fat. I find this distracting while we make the wrapper pastry (simple ingredients, lots and lots of kneading). Then I spend about ten minutes massaging and kneading all that fat through the raw prawn meat and bamboo shoots, until it is so well mixed that it doesn’t show up as a separate ingredient, especially once the prawn meat turns pink as it cooks. I feel like a traitor as I earnestly knead away to hide the evidence.
Shanghai cooking guilt
Then comes the tricky part (physically anyway). Chef Yang Xiao-Yun has a very strict process to make the perfectly shaped dumpling. I hold a small circle of pastry in the flat palm of my left hand, while my right hand picks up and rolls a small ball of the prawn mixture, and places it slightly off centre in the pastry. This is the only time my right hand gets used in this process, it is not allowed to touch the pastry, so it’s all up to the dexterity of my left hand now. I use my thumb to fold half the pastry over the filling, and doing a pincer between thumb and forefinger I fold small pleats, one at a time, across the top edge of the pastry, while pushing it firmly into the bottom edge to seal it closed. Miraculously this forms a perfect symmetrical fluted seashell shape.
Chef tells me that I have excellent finger origami skills (my translation) and that if I make these every day for at least a couple of years I could become a master (she may have been humouring me). We gently steam the dumplings for a few minutes and then I am seated in luxury with a plate of thirty perfect steamed prawn dumplings in front of me. The chef and the assistants do not sample with me, perhaps they have been politely exaggerating how well they thought I had done?
The dumplings taste good, delicious even. But I can’t forget the massive block of fat that I kneaded into these, so I feel my arteries clogging on each mouthful. But I eat many of them anyway as I know in my heart of hearts that these may well be the last steamed prawn dumplings I will ever allow myself to eat. Sometimes it is not a good idea to learn too much about your favourite things in life – you may just ruin it.
What favourite food did you discover was not what you thought it would be?