Dumpling Knots (Mian Geda)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Dumpling Knots (Mian Geda)

"This is a dish few Westerners have heard of, much less tasted," Ellen Schrecker wrote in "Mrs. Chang's Szechwan Cookbook. "Even in China it is never served in restaurants, nor discussed by gourmets. It is a dish eaten by the poorest peasants. ... The dumplings, which are just like my mother-in-law's Central European spaetzle, and the pronounced flavor of the cabbage give this dish a familiar, almost Western, taste."

Ingredients

  • 1 small head cabbage, or 1/2 large head
  • 2 medium pork chops (about 1/2 pound)
  • 1/4 cup dried tree ear mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 5 scallions
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground roasted Szechwan peppercorns
  • Hot pepper flakes in oil

Instructions

Slice the cabbage into rather coarse shreds, about 1-inch wide.

Cut all the bone and fat away from the pork chops, then slice the lean meat as thin as you can, cutting across the grain of the meat; you should get wafer-thin slices of meat about 3 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. (It is always easier to cut meat into very thin slices if you first put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes, until it is slightly stiff but not frozen.)

Put the tree ears in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them soak for about 10 minutes. When they have become soft and slightly gelatinous, rinse them off and pick them over carefully to remove any impurities, such as little pieces of wood, that may still be embedded in them.

Clean the scallions, then chop them, both the white part and about a third of the green, rather coarsely into pieces about 1/4-inch long.

Mix the flour, salt and water together until the dough is well blended and rather sticky; try to get rid of all the lumps.

Heat a wok or a large pot over a moderately high flame for 15 or 20 seconds, then add the oil. It will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.

When the oil is ready, quickly put in the pork slices and the soy sauce. Stir-fry the pork and soy sauce together for about 1 minute, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the pork slices from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so every piece is exposed to the hot oil.

Add the cabbage shreds and continue to stir-fry for about 5 more minutes, using a scooping motion to toss the contents of the pan around so all the cabbage is thoroughly cooked. Start gently, so too much of the cabbage doesn't spill out, then, as the cabbage cooks and reduces in bulk, you can revert to the usual technique of scooping the ingredients into the center and stirring them around there.

When the cabbage is fairly well cooked and rather limp, pour about 8 cups of water into the pan -- or however much is needed to cover the cabbage mixture completely. Wait until the liquid is boiling, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer.

After the cabbage has simmered for about 30 minutes, remove the cover and add the scallions and tree ears and enough additional water to cover the mixture, if needed.

When the water is boiling again, you are ready to add the dumplings. Because of the stickiness of the dough, this is a slightly tricky maneuver. The appearance of the finished product is quite unimportant, so don't worry if your dumplings assume weird shapes. You should try to make them all approximately the same size, remembering that they are smaller than American dumplings and should not be more than about 2 inches long. (If you have ever made Central European spaetzle, you have already mastered the technique, which is identical.)

Take about a teaspoonful of batter in a large spoon and scrape it off into the boiling liquid with another spoon. (It is somewhat easier if both spoons are kept wet by dipping them into the soup before you form each dumpling.) Distribute the dumplings evenly throughout the boiling liquid, but don't stir them for about 2 minutes, or they might fall apart. (There are many other ways of getting the batter into the soup. Mrs. Chiang picks up a strip of dough between two chopsticks, which she then plunges directly into the boiling liquid and shakes around until the dumpling falls off. It is fun to practice this technique, but its mastery is not essential for the success of the dish.)

After all the batter has been used up, add the sesame oil, salt and ground roasted Szechwan peppercorns. Taste the mixture after you have added the salt, and add more if it seems necessary.

Regulate the flame so the liquid is boiling steadily but not violently, and let the dumplings cook for at least 10 minutes.

The traditional method of serving Dumpling Knots is to give each person his own individual portion in a large soup bowl and let him take as much of the hot pepper flakes in oil as he wants and stir it into his dumplings. Start with about 1 teaspoonful in a bowl of soup.

The dish can be made several hours in advance and reheated just before you are ready to eat it.

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