Do you have a desert-island dish, something you could quite happily eat day after day? Mine would be a steaming plate of Chinese dumplings. There would be a dozen and each would contain a fragrant morsel of pork and chives, sealed inside crimped cases of dough that might burst on contact with my chopsticks, releasing their vapours. Dipped in hot chilli oil, they would rise towards my mouth where, one by one, they would disappear whole and I would be a happy man.
In large parts of China, at new year, families come together to make and eat dumplings. Their shape resembles that of the the golden ingots that once served as currency, so it is believed they bring prosperity. They are special but they are also a staple, devoured by the million in homes as well as restaurants and stalls, where women of a certain age sit in the window, expertly rolling and wrapping these delicious parcels under clouds of flour.
I became addicted to dumplings when, in another life, I spent two years teaching English at a university in China. I arrived with little excitement about the food I might find. But even on my vast campus in Ningbo, a booming city on the east coast near Shanghai, there was food that would shame the best British high street takeaway – and be unrecognisable at the worst.
At least once a day, I visited a restaurant under my flat and ordered zhengjiao, a bamboo steamer of elegant dumplings from the southern Fujian province. A canteen from the north-western Xinjiang province sold mountains of boiled, slippery and deeply comforting mutton dumplings. Chefs from Beijing and the north, meanwhile, would fry one side of the dumplings to give them an irresistible crispness.
In the seven years since my return from China, I have pined for her various dumplings, which have barely featured on menus in Britain. Lately, as Chinese food continues to shed the image of foil containers of MSG-laced gloop, I have intensified what had been an idle search for something that would transport me back to China. A few places have come close, but a few weeks ago, on a wobbly stool in south London, I found my ticket.
Ning Ma is 29 and a former accountant. She quit her job last year to open a tiny restaurant with, and named after, her mother. Mama Lan has 25 stools around tables that spill out into Brixton Village, a sprawling covered market in south London that has sprouted dozens of restaurants in the past couple of years, turning it into a magnet for foodies. I stumbled upon the family's restaurant, which occupies a former fishmonger's, with a friend. Not expecting much, I ordered the beef and spring onion dumplings. They arrived with their crisped bottoms upturned, beside a small pile of pickled vegetables. Richly flavoured, totally fresh and as succulent as any I ate in Ningbo, they were so delicious I returned a week or so later to discover Mama Lan's secret. I would also learn how her dumplings had united a family divided by China's breakneck pace of change.
Ning grew up in Beijing, where her mother and grandfather ran a street stall selling guotie, or shallow-fried dumplings (while a small amount of oil crisps the bottoms, the water above it boils and steams the rest).
"I used to watch them making dumplings every day," Ning says in her restaurant on a day it's closed. "At home we would all get together and make them round the table while we caught up with each other."
When Ning was 15, her father, a chef at a Beijing duck restaurant, was sent to London to open a new outlet. Soon the whole family had moved to a country that didn't really get dumplings. "People here still think of dim sum, which are southern Chinese and made with rice flour," she says. "They often contain seafood. In Beijing we use wheat flour and usually pork or beef."
Ning finished her schooling near the family's new home in north-west London before going to university and qualifying as a chartered accountant. Life was good, but neither Ning nor her mother, who wasn't working, felt fulfilled. Inspired by the fledgling trend for supper clubs, or sitting rooms turned into occasional restaurants, Mama Lan began sharing dumplings and simple Beijing street food with anyone who cared to try them.
The supper club and its accompanying blog were a quiet hit, but when Ning heard the early buzz about Brixton she and her mother paused the club to open their first restaurant.
"She was so proud when we got up the steps to hang the sign with her name," she says. The day after they opened, in September last year, Jay Rayner, the influential food critic, joined the queue for tables before drooling over Mama Lan's "bright, blisteringly fresh Beijing street food". The briefest menu also includes beef or tofu noodle soup and street snacks such as fried vegetable balls and shredded chicken dressed with chilli oil.
The queue hasn't gone away since and, when I visit, Mama Lan, who's 56, is resting back in Beijing while daughter Lan runs the tiny kitchen. First she shows me how to make the cases. We roll a sausage of dough, then break it into little chunks. Each must be squashed under the palm of a hand and then rolled flat with a small pin. We add a spoon of filling and carefully fold the cases closed.
Some nights Mama Lan will sell 600 dumplings. Her customers have also included the TV presenter, Gok Wan, who filmed a not-yet-broadcast segment of his new Chinese cookery show here. Sharing her love of dumplings has been rewarding for Ning. "When I was in the City I was one of thousands punching up numbers," she says as we share two plates of dumplings. "Now I feel like I'm achieving something by showing people there's a different kind of Chinese food."
Ning has also become an accomplished cook, inheriting the skills of her mother. "This has really allowed us to bond," she says. "We come from such different generations – she grew up during the Cultural Revolution while I grew up when China was growing really quickly – and sometimes I really felt the gap. But cooking has brought us together."
Mama Lan's Dumplings
Makes about 100 dumplings (5 dumplings per person as a starter or 10 if you're hungry)
For the stuffing
500g beef mince
500g spring onions, thinly sliced
Thumb-size piece of ginger, thinly chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
7 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon sesame oil
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the dough
500ml luke warm water
Make the dough by mixing the water and flour in a large, deep bowl. You'll find it easier adding a small cup full of water at a time. Once the flour and water have been mixed, knead the dough until smooth. The dough should be really soft but not wet to the touch. Cover and leave to rest whilst you make the stuffing.
Put all the ingredients except spring onions and ginger in a large bowl. Use a spoon to mix until the meat has a patty-like consistency. Add the spring onions and ginger to the meat and mix well.
Place the dough on to a flat floured surface. Sprinkle flour on the dough and cut the dough into 4 equally sized pieces. Take one piece and roll into a sausage about 2cms thick. Put the other three pieces back into the bowl and cover so that the surface doesn't turn hard.
Cut off a thumb-sized piece of dough from the "sausage". Sprinkle it with flour, so that it doesn't stick, then flatten itout on the table with the palm of your hand and roll into a small disc. Place the disc in the palm of your hand and put a spoonful of the filling in the centre. With your finger and thumb, nip the sides of the dough together to make a crescent-shaped dumpling.
To boil, place the dumplings for 15 minutes in boiling water, rather like cooking little raviolis. Put 100ml of cold water into the boiling pan after 5 minutes then again after 10 minutes.
Or to pan fry them, heat up a little oil in a fry pan then place the dumplings in the pan and fry for just a minute or so. Next cover the pan with cold water – be careful as the pan may spit.
Boil for 15 minutes then carefully pour away as much water as you can. Hold the dumplings in place using a spatula or spoon.
Place the pan back on the heat, adding a little more oil, and fry until any remaining water disappears and you get a delicious golden base.
Enjoy the hot dumplings with a little Chinese rice vinegar.
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