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Make Rainbow Dumplings, Get Scrappy in the Process
What's currently wilting in your crisper drawer is just dumpling dough in the making.
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Today marks the grand finale of rainbow dumpling month! It’s also the debut of Above the Fold’s very first guest writer: Mei Li, who runs the awesome site Food Waste Feast—and is also the co-founder of Mei Mei, co-author of Double Awesome Chinese Food, and sister of previous Above the Fold interviewee Irene Li.
At the onset of rainbow dumpling month, Mei just so happened to post an Instagram about experimenting with veggie scraps to make rainbow dumplings. It felt like kismet, and what began as trading dough-coloration tips in the DMs turned into the realization that it would be really great if Mei shared a guest column all about what it’s actually like to make rainbow dumplings at home. So here we are.
Her words form a fitting conclusion to this month’s stories; while the focus on rainbow dumplings has highlighted lots of makers with tons of impressive skill, it’s also inherently put aesthetics on a pedestal. Mei’s take on the implications of Instagram perfection (and her conscious decision to back away from it) makes for a refreshing, necessary, and very useful counterpart. I’ll let Mei take it from here!—LM
It all started with an enormous bag of spinach from Costco. While standing there staring at the leaves taking up nearly half a shelf in my fridge, I realized I had just the opportunity to use some up: I’d recently agreed to start teaching dumpling-making classes, and promised to recipe test some rainbow-colored dough for advanced learners looking to expand their dumpling repertoire. Suddenly, an overabundance of spinach seemed like the ideal situation.
A bit of background on why I’m so into both dumplings and using things up: I used to co-own Boston’s Mei Mei food truck and restaurant with my brother and sister, which has now transitioned into a dumpling company. Now I run Food Waste Feast, a website and forthcoming cookbook designed to help people cook more creatively, use up what they have, and stop wasting perfectly good food.
Thankfully, two primary aspects of my lifestyle align perfectly when it comes to reducing food waste. There’s the desire to be a more environmentally aware citizen, but much more strongly, there’s my generally lazy attitude towards the act of shopping and cooking. Can I avoid going to the grocery store by using the wilted kale in my fridge? Great! Can I skip peeling this carrot and save the peels from going into the trash? Excellent!
The dumplings I make now compared to the dumplings of my childhood exemplify this general tendency to avoid more work (but all in the service of the planet, of course). Growing up, making dumplings required a special trip to Boston’s Chinatown to buy Napa cabbage or Chinese chives, the vegetables often included in a classic pork dumpling.
I, however, hate making special trips anywhere to buy anything. So the traditional pork dumpling recipe in our first cookbook, Double Awesome Chinese Food, became a “Traditional-ish” dumpling where you can swap in any greens you have in the house, from Brussels sprouts to arugula. It’s a handmade dumpling dinner as well as an opportunity to clean out the crisper drawer.
We’ve been seeing lots of people cooking and folding dumplings at home recently, both directly through our classes and all over the world through social media. While so many people are making dumplings for the first time, we’ve also got clients clamoring for more advanced lessons to make the fancy restaurant dumplings you might see on Instagram (or in Leah’s inspiration-filled ATF newsletters).
I find these beautifully intricate wrappers and folds to be aspirational (I want to try making—and eating—what’s in that gorgeous photo!) but also sometimes disheartening. A great deal of the food content on Instagram is focused on perfection and performance, which sometimes runs contrary to the idea of cooking creatively and using things up. While I enjoy watching the stop-motion creation of extravagant cheese and charcuterie boards, for example, a voice in the back of my head always says “I hope someone is eating all that salami!”
It makes me think back to my short-lived French macaron obsession a decade ago, a time of my life spent baking hundreds of trays of the notoriously challenging cookie. Striving for immaculately smooth, dreamily colored, mathematically circular macarons meant many aesthetically imperfect (but still delicious!) ones getting tossed in the trash.
I always wonder what’s going on behind the scenes of Instagram food perfection and whether a lot of food was thrown out in order to create that elaborate and impressive photograph.
So when I stepped into the world of making colored dumplings, I decided to stay away from the specialty dyes and powders that might be needed to achieve such deeply saturated colors. My dumplings would all be colored with real ingredients that someone might have around the kitchen, offering another opportunity to cut down on food waste.
Digging further through my fridge, I had the spinach for green dumplings and some limp, slightly hairy old carrots for orange dumplings. After a quick glance at the internet (specifically this helpful blog post), I figured red cabbage would do nicely for a purplish tone. I boiled a big pot of water and put it on the back burner of my stove so I could ladle small amounts of water into a smaller pot along with the vegetables.
Meanwhile, I set up 3 mixing bowls with 2 cups/240 grams of flour each, along with a pinch of salt (based on the recipe from our first cookbook). I pulled out my food processor to grate the carrots, roughly chopped the spinach, then proceeded to cook all the vegetables one by one. I dropped the spinach in the water for mere seconds, until just wilted, then simmered the carrots and cabbage for about 5 minutes each, until soft.
Since I already had the food processor out, I pureed all of the cooked vegetables and strained out the cooking liquid to use as the water for the dough. Obviously, I couldn’t throw out the remaining veggie pulp so I added it into the pork filling mixture in place of the assorted greens in our “Traditional-ish” dumpling. On a whim, I decided to leave the spinach bits in one batch. Rather than a uniformly colored dough, the green bits made for a fun speckled pattern and gave me 4 different doughs to try folding.
Upon mixing the dough, I realized that I should have paid more attention to the amount of water used to boil each vegetable. Only a minuscule amount of water evaporated during the wilting of the spinach, but I had less water for the orange and purple doughs and needed to add more back in. But then once I started kneading, I realized less liquid might actually have been a good idea.
In each case I had a much wetter, looser dough than normal, making it extremely hard to knead without everything sticking to the counter. I had to repeatedly scrape my work surface with my dough scraper and liberally sprinkle the dough ball with flour after every turn. After a half an hour of rest time, the folding process was similarly loose and sticky. And the dough was less elastic than I’m used to, making it hard to roll uniform circles or get any crisp pleats.
While the process got frustrating at times, I admittedly did find great satisfaction in looking at the pastel tones of the tray, a pleasing visual change from the monotonous beige of most trays of dumplings.
All in all, I enjoyed the process of experimentation (as well as the chance to get some months-old carrots out of the fridge). While I don’t think I’ll ever approach the precision or perfection of the most-liked Instagram dumpling content, I definitely plan to make these again. I’m looking for the gratification of “solving” all the recipe issues I noticed the first time, from adjusting the liquid amounts to pureeing in a blender (as opposed to a rougher chop in the food processor) to get more saturated colors.
Plus, making these dumplings was a great way to use up bits of vegetables that might be too old or wilted to eat raw: When something gets boiled, pureed, and stuffed in a dumpling, all manner of flaws can be hidden, whether it’s a wrinkly red cabbage or a limp bunch of spinach. And I know my kids will be much more excited to eat a rainbow dumpling than a plain dumpling, so I see a lot more exciting colors in our dumpling future. Using up food while eating delicious dumplings—that’s definitely a win-win. 🥟
Want some more at-home rainbow dumpling content? Here’s a reading list:
How to Make Colorful Dumplings, Epicurious (by Max Falkowitz)
Colourful Dumplings for Chinese New Year, Red House Spice (by Wei Guo)
How to Naturally Colour Food, Culinary Calgary (by Erin Boukall)
I'm Ready for the East Asian Technicolor Dumpling Trend Because I Used To Make These Out of Play-Doh, Fifth Season (by Clarissa Wei)
Hat tip to friend of ATF Janelle Nanos for putting two and two together :)