Credit: Ten Speed Press

It’s been two years since writer-chef Hugh Amano and illustrator Sarah Becan’s Let’s Make Ramen! comic cookbook was published. Halfway through that period I can imagine what a gift it was to a certain sort of obsessive who didn’t pick up sourdough starters or cake making during the pandemic.

The duo embraced their own pandemic passion well before it started— making and eating lots and lots of dumplings. The end result of that dropped like a buoyant jiaozi in the pot last month.

Like its predecessor, Let’s Make Dumplings! (Ten Speed Press) is an illustrated demystifier of an intimidating subject. If you think you’d rather go out for soup dumplings, potstickers, or shumai at your favorite dim sum spot, than learn how to make them from scratch,  Amano and Becan’s simple, genial step-by step style might convince you otherwise. At the very least it ought to inspire you to visit your nearest and dearest dumpling maker for a quick fix. (I had to put it down halfway for an emergency Joong Boo run for wang mandoo and shrimp and pork dumplings.)

The pair shared a couple excerpts for a quick taste and humored me with a bit of online dumpling chat which you’ll find after the first two pages of  dumpling lore, followed by instructions for momo (which are the same for dumplings).

What was the volume in terms of dumplings made and consumed during the process of researching and writing?

Hugh Amano: So many dumplings! At times I felt like Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona when he’s trying to corral all the Arizona babies crawling around everywhere: I’d make a filling, then taste it and adjust it as needed; but you know, once the recipe is down, you have all this filling made to scale so you should probably make or buy some more wrappers, and now you have all these wrappers left over, so you should make another filling and thus forth. The old hot dog/bun numbers never lining up conundrum, but tastier. Then of course there’s the research—traveling to places like Dumpling Galaxy in Flushing or Mother’s Dumplings in Toronto, much of the time I’d be solo with several plates of various dumplings in front of me, and I’m not one to waste food, so . . . let’s just say the research way back when for Let’s Make Ramen! really prepped me for a diet consisting mainly of wheat flour, pork, and salt.

Besides that, what was your collaborative process like? Was it any different from Let’s Make Ramen!? Easier? More challenging?

Sarah Becan: Our process went really smoothly this time around. I think because we had established a pretty strong method of work with Let’s Make Ramen! We started the project out by cooking a bunch of dumplings together, in person, (pre-pandemic, of course) because we really wanted to nail the dumpling folding diagrams. I think that was a big priority for both of us in this book, to make sure we had really clear instructions for how to fold some of the most popular dumpling shapes. Hugh had made up a batch of dough and the gyoza filling, and we rolled out and folded all the different shapes, several times. And then of course, we had dozens of dumplings to cook and eat, which was pretty great.

After that, it was pretty much the same method we used with our previous book, with lots of constant communication. Hugh took lots of photos of his process, and if there was anything I didn’t completely understand, I’d text him with questions, and he’d text back with answers, and often photos or even video, so I could be sure that I really understood the method or technique in question.

I never considered tamales to be dumplings until now. What are the exact parameters that make a dumpling?

HA: Who can say? This is one of those things that people feel varying levels of passion about, and contradictions can always be found. Is a dumpling defined as a piece of dough with a filling in it? Well, yes . . . but I wouldn’t call a bismarck or a paczki a dumpling. And that definition excludes unfilled dough like spaetzle and the dumplings in chicken and dumplings, yet I would include those on the list. But if we’re including them, why wouldn’t we include gnocchi? Honestly, I don’t know that I would walk around describing a tamale as a dumpling, but I suppose the point the cartoon me is making in the book is that pretty much every culture in the world has one or more delightful concoctions involving dough—usually but not necessarily always filled—that is fried, or steamed, or cooked however—that could be described as a dumpling. Etymologically speaking the word seems to come from an older English word describing a lump of boiled dough, but hey, a rose by any other name, you know?

Is a hot dog a dumpling?

HA: Maybe if you wrap a crescent roll around it. But seriously, that makes me stop and think. If we define a dumpling as a delicious filling encased in a functional yet edible wrapper, then sure, but that’s just weird—then we’d have to call Scotch eggs and chimichangas and those glorious semi-sealed deep-fried tacos at the Warren County Prime Beef Festival dumplings, too!

SB: We had so many discussions about how to define dumpling, what foods counted as dumplings. Is a pierogi a dumpling? Ravioli? Samosas? Empanadas? It can be easy to get lost in the philosophical details with a question like this. To my mind, a hot dog isn’t a dumpling because it isn’t sealed, but then again, if a dumpling has to be sealed, is a shumai not a dumpling? I saw a tweet a few years ago about whether a hot dog was a sandwich and it said, “it’s an edge case that demonstrates the weaknesses of any taxonomic system.” It’s a thought I come back to pretty often when these questions come up. No taxonomy is going to be perfect.

(I feel bad that I don’t know this person’s name and can’t credit them beyond their Twitter account, but the tweet is here! )

Are there pragmatic reasons for the way dumpling shapes took from place to place? Like to catch sauce or for portability? Was it about aesthetics at all?

HA: I think that aesthetics were definitely a factor—dumplings are a humble food, so patterns from folding them a certain way or how they are arranged on a platter play a role. Open shumai create opportunity for gilding with various garnishes and are visually distinctive anyway. But anything that requires the carrier to be edible has to be functional as well, a la a crunchy crab Rangoon with lots of nooks and crannies for sauce and extra surface area for crunch. Plus, the shapes and sizes can show skill—Turkish manti are filled dumplings that are tiny, and the smaller your manti, the higher your skill level.

Did you look into/discover anything about the history of soup dumplings (xiaolongbao)? Do you think adding aspic to a dumpling filling was serendipity or deliberate strategy?

HA: The history with all dumplings can be somewhat fuzzy, but I believe that the development of xiaolongbao (xlb) was intentional—a way of displaying culinary might through trickery of sorts to set oneself apart from one’s rivals. An early form of molecular gastronomy if you will, but much more affordable.

Seems like there are a just a handful of really good xlb specialists in the U.S., mostly in NYC and LA. Why are they so rarely consistent in most U.S. restaurants? Do you have to be a specialist? Should the average home cook expect better results than the average restaurant?

HA: I think that any time you add a step in a restaurant, quality is more challenging to sustain. For xlb, now you aren’t just throwing together a filling; you are making a gelatinous stock, making sure it tastes right and is gelatinous enough, then you’ve got to keep it cool while incorporating it into the filling and wrapping that into dough. And what if the guy with the sweaty, hot hands wants to help? A lot can go wrong in the process, so if you specialize in it, all these steps are down and run like clockwork. At the end of the day, practice makes perfect—the Japanese ethic of kaizen and kodawari really applies here.

Do you think there are any dumpling-shaped holes in Chicago. Are we missing anything?

HA: I personally would love a place where I can just go crush gyoza. It’s always this delicate thing on a really nice plate and there’s like five gyoza and I want 20 more orders. A dirty little secret of mine is my love of Ohsho, a chain restaurant in Japan where you can get six gyoza for about 250 Yen, which works out to like 40 cents per dumpling. And they are pretty good; I’ve sat at the counter and watched the guy filling gyoza after gyoza after gyoza as I ate gyoza after gyoza after gyoza. Cheap, passable ramen, too. But here, you’d be hard pressed to find something Japanese that is so casually, comfortably dirty.

SB: There are so many different types and recipes and shapes of dumplings out there, I’m sure Chicago has some dumpling-shaped holes, but honestly, I feel like we’re pretty spoiled for choice! The wang mandoo at Joong Boo market, all the different steamed bao at Chiu Quon, momos at Momo World . . . the dozens and dozens of shops and restaurants in Chinatown and Argyle and everywhere else where you can find just about every recipe in our book. Chicago’s dumpling scene runs deep!   v

Credit: Ten Speed Press