Andrea Nguyen is the author of the cookbooks "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen,"Asian Dumplings" and the upcoming "Asian Tofu." A self-taught cook, Nguyen has also created the iPhone app Asian Market Shopper and an extended e-book for "Asian Dumplings."
What's your favorite memory of making dumplings? And eating them?
I’m the youngest among five kids. There were four girls in our family and my mom assigned us to make pot stickers. (My brother never got kitchen duties!) We would make the filling and sit around the dining table wrapping dumplings. We’d challenge and chide one another about forming neat pleats. We’d tweak techniques and come up with new shapes too. Then we’d cook up the dumplings for everyone to eat. We had several packages of dumpling wrappers so the joking made the work fun and time pass by. I love making dumplings with other people.
The first time I went to the original Mandarin Deli in Chinatown, Los Angeles, I was bowled over by their pot stickers made with fresh dough. They were huge, crisp on the bottom, and burst with hot juice when you bit into one. It was a tiny restaurant but the dumpling guy had a prime spot in the front behind a glass window. I snuck as many peeks at him working as I could. I was a teenager in high school mesmerized by his doughy prowess.
Which dumpling recipe would you recommend for a beginner?
Start with the first recipe in the book. You don’t have to make the wrapper from scratch. Make the filling, use premade wrappers, and poach the dumplings. Tumble them in the soy, vinegar, and chile oil dipping sauce. They’re out of this world. After that, try making your own wrappers. Don’t fuss over the shape. Just get the darn wrapper closed. Then maybe try pan-frying, steaming, or deep-frying the dumpling.
If readers kept a "dumpling-making pantry," what should they always have on hand?
Aside from fresh aromatics such as green onions, ginger, and garlic, these are the go-to ingredients for making Asian dumplings:
Flours and Starches: All-purpose flour (bleached and unbleached), rice flour, glutinous (sweet) rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca starch, and wheat starch
Seasonings: Soy sauce (light and dark), oyster sauce, Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry, Chinkiang vinegar or a not-too-sweet balsamic vinegar, unseasoned rice vinegar, and sesame oil
Most of these ingredients are sold at regular supermarkets. A few others will require a trip to an Asian market.
What's the most unusual dumpling you've made or eaten?
This is hard to answer because Asian dumplings are full of really nifty cooking techniques. Among my favorites are taro puffs and sesame balls. We get them at dim sum but when we do make them ourselves? If you make them – and they are not as hard as you may think – you witness culinary magic. The taro puff dough turns frizzy and crisps like a beehive hairdo. The sesame balls expand when you press them in the hot oil. Pure doughy genius.
And the most memorable?
My first excellent soup dumpling and daikon radish cake was in Vancouver at the Golden Great Wall restaurant. They were freshly made right after we ordered. We had them as a prelude to dinner. I could have eaten those two Shanghai specialties all night long.
How did you decide to make an extended version of your book?
The enhanced digital version of "Asian Dumplings" was about making videos of the various shaping techniques. That’s what people tend to get hung up on when I teach a dumpling class. I had made YouTube videos and put them on Asiandumplingtips.com but when Ten Speed Press approached me to do a digital version of the book, I said, “Can we add video?” They said yes! That’s the beauty and opportunities of digital publishing.
Can you give us a sneak peek of your new book on tofu? Any surprising/unusual recipes you've discovered?
I cannot even begin to describe all the wonderful things that I discovered while writing "Asian Tofu." I met incredible people along the way, and my friends and colleagues stepped up to contribute their knowledge and insights. The book’s subtitle says what it’s about: "Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home." "Asian Tofu" is about me on the tofu trail – traveling, eating, cooking, and talking to people about tofu. It is one of the most important foods that sustains people and also feeds their culinary artistry.
Are approaches to tofu widely different in Asia? How so?
Chinese tofu dishes tend to be more manipulated than Japanese and Korean ones. There are more tofu-based mocked meats in the Chinese vegetarian repertoire that are amazing. On the other hand, the Japanese appreciate the purity and simplicity of excellent tofu. They’ll enjoy excellent tofu warmed in a hotpot filled with water along with a little dipping sauce. Koreans imbue tofu with gutsy flavor.
Do you think tofu has a negative rep in the U.S.? How will the new cookbook address this?
Tofu is sorely misunderstood in the US. Many still perceive it as the bland white block in water. They’ve mostly experienced it in vegetarian western preparations such as healthy tofu breakfast scrambles.
If tofu is scrambled in say, a Japanese manner, there may be a little pork in there, some dashi stock, vegetables and fragrant sesame oil; the cook could even add an egg. In that regard, tofu is not a meat replacement, but rather another protein element. Asian Tofu puts tofu in its original context, as beloved staple that can be deliciously prepared in countless ways.