Chinese New Year is not here yet, but this is when it's most exciting. The week before Chinese New Year is when the new clothes get shopped for, the garish lanterns go up, the tacky music floods the radio stations, and when tubs and tins and jars and packets of goodies start piling up on the living room table. That was until four years ago though, when I moved to London.
They say Chinese New Year is about the people and not so much the clothes/lantern/music/goodies, and in a sense I guess you are right, because it is pretty much the only time in the year when I meet some of my relatives. But because it's the only time in the year when I meet some of these relatives, these meetings unfortunately usually look like this: a hot and crowded living room, a row of blank faces staring at the TV pretending there's something interesting going on, and maybe a cluster of people bravely attempting to strike conversation. There never was that heartwarming scene of people folding dumplings together. (We still all love one another though).
But I thought I would start getting this dumpling business down. I got some friends over for a premature Chinese New Year dinner, and instead of having food ready on the table, I made them work for their food. We made two sorts. There was a gluten-free girl, so none of your usual potstickers or shortcut wanton wrappers. We did steamed cabbage dumplings, using cabbage leaves to wrap a juicy pork-and-scallion filling, and one of my favourite dumplings, soon kueh, turnip dumplings. They have a slippery smooth thin wrapper made of tapioca and rice flour that I absolutely love, and that isn't used in any other dumpling except soon kueh. The filling is actually made from bamboo shoots ('soon') and jicama (yam bean), not a turnip per se, but I've done it before with a British turnip from the farmer's market and though it's not the same, it's not half bad at all. I also skipped the bamboo shoots (taste-wise it doesn't affect much) but then I don't know if you should call it soon kueh. Hmm.
The soon kueh we made were, well, rustic. The skin was slippery, smooth and soft, but frankly not very pretty, I already chose the best ones to photograph. But within the ugly shapeless wrapper is a wonderful burst of flavour from the stewed turnips and mushrooms that are plump with sweet juices from the dried shrimps. And anyway, homemade dumplings aren't meant to be exquisite works of art; they're meant to be imperfect, delicious, and an excuse for you to get messy with your favourite people.