Monday, February 18, 2013

UnRecipe: Far East Meets Eastern Europe

Did you know there's an Eastern European version of the magical Chinese soup dumpling, aka, xiao long bao? And did you know the this version is way less of a pain in the be-hind to make from scratch? Forget Lunar New Year, I'm defecting to the land of Eastern Promises, where the dumplings are hearty and plentiful -- priviet, comrades!

Soup dumplings, Russian-style -- meet khinkali - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I had intended this post to come out the week of Chinese New Year, but I was still on the tail-end of Maui-wowie vacation posts and the most recent Belgianfest beer festival. There was definitely no shortage of celebration, to be sure. Now that we've fully entered the Year of the Snake, I can say, the hell with tradition -- Dumplings for EVERYONE! I could blame that new FX series The Americans, about sleeper KGB agents playing spygames in the totally rad 80s, or that whenever the movie Eastern Promises is on, I have to stop the world and admire Viggo Mortensen as he does some seriously scary and somewhat pendulous hand-to-hand combat in a Russian steam room. Maybe I just dig Russia and its surrounding republics, conquered states, etc., and think that whole region's cuisine has some curious cultural intersections that go beyond the typical bowl of borscht. 

It's a knee-jerk reaction to associate dumplings with Chinese cuisine, but of course many other cultures embrace tiny dough-wrapped parcels of meat and/or vegetables that are steamed, boiled or fried. I had to throw down a Liz Lemon What-the-WHAT when I first heard about khinkali, often quickly described as Georgian or Russian juicy dumplings. I was researching dumplings for an article I was writing, and wanted to explore other cultural takes on this dish, so of course I thought of  Eastern European pelmeni and pierogi, which are like extra-doughy ravioli topped with sour cream, and absolutely marvelous. I saw khinkali listed among Russian dumpling menus, but wasn't familiar, so I went to the Batcave and called up the Internet to help. There's a whole universe of blog posts and websites devoted to this dumpling that originated from the Republic of Georgia. While not Russian itself, the dumplings, much like the region, was co-opted by Mother Russia, and is often associated with Russian cuisine. The development of this dish could have possibly come by way of Turkey, given its border-neighboring proximity -- Turkey has smaller dumplings called manti, but they don't quite have the unique liquid filling that khinkali has, and they kind of remind me of open-topped Chinese shaomai. And that's the thing that struck me, khinkali's similarity to the Chinese xiao long bao, where you have a bit of meat, but also a distinctive juicy broth filling, trapped within the dough. Dumplings are a very old dish, and I wouldn't be surprised if back in the wild days of Genghis Khan, some of the food prep methods spread as far and wide as his DNA.

Eastern European?  Asian? Silly -- you're both probably right - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The point is -- nobody really owns anything when it comes to food. Cultures adapt dishes to fit their tastes and what's available, and over the years the cuisine gets a nationalist stamp of approval, but at the end of the day, we just want something delicious and interesting to eat. Khinkali totally caught my attention, so I made it, and not only was it Amazeballs, it wasn't as frustrating as making xiao long bao. I used the recipe for khinkali off Saveur's site -- hence the UnRecipe title; you can head there for all the details. I modified the recipe for myself in that I didn't have fenugreek (which I know I should pick up, it's popular in Indian food), and I added more garlic and red pepper flake because I just like it. I also ground the pork instead of getting it pre-ground -- I happened to have chunks of pork shoulder, which is a nice meat-to-fat ratio. One of the recommendations I saw on several khinkali-making articles and recipes was to grind the onions into the filling, that even a good mince wasn't enough -- the meat grinder did a dandy job, but a food processor is just as good. The main thing is to keep all that onion-strong liquid and incorporate that, along with the onion pulp, into the ground meat mixture. It will be moist and easy to handle, but not watery, so just Trust in the Onion. For xiao long bao, many methods recommend gelatinizing a seasoned pork broth and sealing that up with the ground pork into dumpling skins, khinkali's method of mixing raw onions along with the juice, into ground meat, yields similar broth-filled dumpling results. Heat from steaming turns the gelatin broth back into liquid for xiao long bao, and there's enough moisture from the onion juice and its pulp in the khinkali filling to turn it into a light broth during its boil. Skipping the broth jelly step makes for a much easier dumpling process -- sorry, China, but the Georgians got it right. The onion juice incorporated into fatty ground meat, as well as uncooked vegetable matter trapped with moisture all made for much faster dumpling production and far less kitchen swearing, trying to portion off broth jelly cubes with pinches of ground pork.

Welcome to the Meat Grinder... Truckasaurus to follow! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
In both dumpling situations, the main thing is a good, proper dough seal, otherwise all that hard work to build flavor literally drains away. I went with the more Asian-style of sealing our khinkali, folding the edges and then a finished twist to make sure everything's locked down and ready to rumble. Traditionally khinkali is supposed to have a pretty large, pronounced garlic-topper-looking knob at the top of each dumpling, which you actually don't tend to eat, it gets tossed aside once you've eaten the good part. The I'm-Asian-We-Don't-Waste-Anything kicked in, so I skipped that superfluous dough-handle bit and our dumplings looked like giant xiao long bao.

Delicious filling, ground to tender perfection - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Is it important to make the dough from scratch? In this case -- absolutely. I've cheated on quickie little potstickers, nobody died, but for something like this, fresh dumpling dough is a must. The recipe off Saveur is as basic as it gets: flour, warm water, a little bit of salt. You mix it all up until the dough comes together, then just let it rest for a few hours in the fridge, wrapped in plastic. Let it come to room temperature before handling it, and you'll find that it's very soft, pliable. You'll see why the fresh dough is crucial when you're making palm-sized dumplings and realizing the elasticity of the dough is a savior. It easily wraps around silver dollar-sized dollops of meat filling, and when you're doing the final fold, twist and seal, the dough sticks nicely to itself with a bit of water. It's a thicker-skinned than its Asian counterparts but that ensures a good barrier to the boiling water that ultimately transforms the khinkali into magic meat-soup dumplings.

DIY Dumplings, from filling to dough -- Photos by Wasabi Prime
Because khinkali is quite a bit heavier than your average dumpling, I'd recommend using a spider or slotted spoon to gently introduce each one into the boiling water. Just dropping them in will cause them to stick to the bottom of the pot and then you get the inevitable Titanic tear and release of all its marvelous soup-filling. I totally did that a few times before I got the slow n' steady method down-pat. All it needs is a few extra seconds for the water to cook the dough and give it a non-sticky layer so that it can sit on the bottom of the pot and still be free to float up to the surface as the universal dumpling signal of -- ding -- I'm done, fish me out! Give the floating dumplings a little extra minute or so to make sure the filling is fully cooked, just because of its heftier size.

China makes a guest star with spicy wokked green beans and broccoli - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The finished khinkali are traditionally served as-is, with a lot of fresh-ground pepper. I could have easily eaten the lot of them, but a side of greens seemed more prudent. Call me a creature of habit, but I wokked-up green beans and broccoli in a spicy-sweet chili sauce. Definitely not Georgian, but consider this cultural mashup an ode to the Far East having dinner with Eastern Europe. Good taste is indeed culturally universal, as both the dumplings and the spicy veggies tasted perfect together.

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