Monday, February 15, 2010

FoodTrek: Demystifying Dumplings With Andrea Nguyen

You just want to hug Andrea Nguyen. Personable, funny and boisterous, she’s like a favorite auntie who let you drive the car when no one was looking, baked cookies at midnight while you watched old movies together, and brought unforgettable enthusiasm into everything she did. In a word – you learned. Food writer and James Beard nominee Andrea Nguyen brought her energetic method of education to Bellevue’s Monsoon East, to share tips from her new cookbook, Asian Dumplings, over a delicious meal of Vietnamese-style dumplings, prepared with loving skill by Monsoon East’s kitchen.

Happy Lunar New Year! Eat up! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Celebrating the cookbook and Lunar New Year, this luncheon presented several delicious dumplings, paired with exquisite teas, to showcase the versatility of carbohydrates and starches, combined to form a multitude of textures and sensations. Paging through her beautifully written and photographed book, Asian Dumplings, it can seem almost daunting to attempt the seemingly exotic recipes, but Nguyen emphasizes the fact that dumplings themselves are a global phenomena, whether it’s in the form of ravioli, pelmeni, or the basic comfort of a chicken n’ dumpling soup. The process of making the dough and filling it with a bit of meat or vegetables is a universal thing, born of necessity versus gourmet inclinations, and while cultures differ in their process and ingredients, its intent has always been to make it a simple, humble meal. Andrea Nguyen wants to lift the veil and demystify these dishes, that while it’s easy enough to go out and have expert hands create perfect little parcels of deliciousness, it’s just as conceivable to learn the basics behind these creations, and do what many beloved grandmothers and favorite aunties have done for generations.

When it comes to cooking Asian meals, Nguyen pointed out the fact that we are far more blessed now in our grocery stores than we were not long ago. Something as basic as fresh ginger root or multiple choices of soy sauce wasn’t always available in basic stores. My own parents can attest to this, as my father used to raid the scant supplies of soy milk at neighborhood Lucky's Market, because of my lactose intolerance as a baby (cursed genetics!). Now, it’s more like, which soy milk flavor does one choose from the two rows of options? Andrea Nguyen carefully chose her ingredient list for her book based on what most grocery stores have, plus she includes shortcuts and “Lazy Day Tips” to further emphasize her goal to make these dishes accessible to every kitchen. Her personable writing voice also makes everything seem possible -- in one side note of her book, when she makes the suggestion to plan your own dumpling party, she advises for the party host to not make all the dumplings fresh on the day of the event, as “…this will only make you grumpy.” Wiser words have never spoken.

Rice batter, wrapped around pork and mushrooms - my favorite for the day. Photo by Wasabi Prime

Since this was a festive event, Monsoon East spared no flourish to truly give each dumpling something special, with the loving blessing of a taste of home. Guests were treated to sticky rice with mung bean paste and pork, wrapped in several banana leaves and boiled overnight, creating a large log-shaped dumpling, served in slices, and sprinkled with fine cubes of a mortadella-like Vietnamese pork sausage, taking on the fragrance of the banana leaf and the delicate savory filling. A dessert version of this dish was also served, with banana in the center, turning a saturated red hue from the low heat, and drizzled with rich coconut milk and a basil syrup.

Sweet and savory banana-wrapped logs of sticky rice - Photos by Wasabi Prime

A perfect orb of tapioca pearl dough, filled with shrimp and taro were presented in a pool of tart, savory broth, eliciting many comments that it was almost too perfect to eat. Okay, almost too perfect, as this playful dish was happily enjoyed and a favorite of many guests. A familiar wonton, fried golden and crisp, sprinkled with shavings of green onion, had a lovely, satisfying crunch. My personal favorite was the crepe-like sheet of rice batter, wrapped around Kurobuta pork shoulder and mushrooms, over a bed of bean sprouts and herbs, with more matchstick-thin slices of the Vietnamese sausage sprinkled over the little oblong-shaped dumplings.

Pretty as a pearl - tapioca pearl dumpling. Photo by Wasabi Prime

Monsoon East’s beautiful food made it a tough act to follow, making one wonder if they could make something with such precision and flavor complexity, but ever the teacher, Andrea Nguyen shared a tutorial over the basics behind making dumpling skins from scratch, and how easy it can be. Granted, because of the wide array of Asian ingredients in stores, people can buy them, but Nguyen brought up the point that unless it’s an Asian market where you can buy the skins freshly made, chances are the pre-packaged items will be too old and rubbery, plus she stressed that how once you make this simple dough from scratch and sample its chewy, toothy texture, it will be difficult to imagine buying premade dumpling skins again. Water, unbleached flour, a pinch of salt, an egg, and cornstarch for dusting are all that’s needed to make the dough to form any number of wontons or spring roll dumplings. Mixed in a food processor to form a ball and left to rest, Nguyen explains that forming the small discs of dough can be easily done with a small wooden dowel and a tortilla press. She explained that by having the fresh dough, creating a seal is easier, as no water will be required as the glue, plus the dough will have more flexibility, therefore more forgiving of overfilling. Nguyen went through a quick tutorial over the different styles of folding dumplings, which are also shown in straightforward illustrations in her book, but stressed that it doesn’t have to be perfect, as no matter what the shape, it will still taste delicious and twice as satisfying knowing you made it yourself.

DIY dumpling skin tutorial - you can DO it! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It was an inspiring experience, sampling the delicate flavors and textures of the Vietnamese-style dishes prepared by Monsoon East, as well as listening to Andrea Nguyen share the gospel of the humble, yet revered dumpling. Her book, Asian Dumplings, is both educational and a reminder that food doesn’t have to have an ivory tower mystique about it – these are foods that have been prepared for generations of people, by many with no formal training, simply a shared love of food and family. This is a great lesson to take away from the growing movement to make cooking more accessible again, reconnecting people to the ingredients and their own kitchens.

Beautiful tea paired with delicious food - Photo by Wasabi Prime

A great Wasabi Thanks to Andrea Nguyen for both her book and her inspiration to get me out of the habit of buying pre-made dumpling wrappers, Sophie and Eric Banh for hosting and preparing the amazing meal at Monsoon East, the team at Gruman & Nicoll for organizing such a lovely event, and special Wasabi thanks and appreciation to all the fantastic foodies, bloggers, writers, and Tweeters I got to meet at the event.

Bookmark and Share


  1. WOW. Such a great event for you to experience this. I want to have her cookbook too and maybe even meet her one day. Sad to say, I still have some dumpling wrappers in the freezer for weeks now. The tea setup is incredible and the food is mouth watering.

  2. i see art pieces showcasing here!

  3. Thinking about how easy it is to make dumpling wrappers and how easy it would be to put your own spin on the basic recipe really unlocks the imagination. So many of our favorite foods are so essentially simple that it's really strange to think how little most people care about being able to make them without the help of a factory :P

    Life, you are too fast.

  4. Great piece Denise! You really captured the event.
    It was a pleasure meeting you at the event. I said it half jokingly,
    but mind if I repost one of pics on my blog , with a link of course?


  5. Thanks so much for sharing this - would have loved to be there, but alas, work... This is probably my favorite cookbook purchase of 2010 - I've been using it at least once a month and it is FANTASTIC! Glad you had fun.

  6. Surpurb recap of this event, Wasabi!
    Andrea offers sound advice about not making the dumplings the day of the event...I did that once, and I think instead of just getting grumpy I got a little too tipsy after everyone arrived. I spent so much time cooking during the day, I forgot to eat--never a good idea.

  7. Awesome! What a lucky girl you are! I have Nguyen's book, Asian Dumplings, and have already used it many times. I have to say, even though her recipes are very user-friendly, making dumplings still take some skill perfecting. I'll practice as much as I need to as long as I can use her recipes though!

  8. The tapioca pearl dumplings remind me of a old thai snack. It isn't easy to find now. I agree that it's much easier now to find asian ingredients than before. Banana wrap logs is another reminder of a Thai dessert. This show some similarities between Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. After all we're not far away from each other, geographically. All the shots look so yummy and I've never seen Vietnamese food the way you show here before. Great work Wasabi.

  9. I've always found dumplings intimidating. Thanks for taking the mystery out of the process. They look great!

  10. This looks like such an experience! Wish I were there to try everything too! The pearl dumpling is just breathtaking.


Commentary encouraged. Fresh baked cookies, super-encouraged. (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)