Since it is the Lunar New Year in China I thought I’d post a food story.
They say that you become a native after living in a foreign country for so long. You’ve adopted so many strange habits that it’s difficult to adapt when you return home.
One delicious habit I picked up while living in China is dipping jiaozi or dumplings in Zhenjiang vinegar and popping them into my mouth fresh out of the pot or pan.
Zhenjiang vinegar or Zhenjiang cu in Chinese, is a rice based black vinegar that is similar in taste and aromatics to balsamic vinegar. It’s a little lighter than soy sauce but much more pungent in taste and smell.
I was first introduced to this delectable condiment back in the fall of 1995 in Nanjing when my Chinese friend Valerie and I stopped in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to eat. We ordered a plate full of piping hot boiled dumplings.
On every restaurant table in China there are two condiments; jiang and cu. Soy sauce and vinegar. I watched as Valerie took a tiny saucer and poured cu in it. Then with a pair of chopsticks she took a dumpling, dipped it in the cu before popping the morsel in her mouth.
I was taught to “do as the Romans do”. So I followed suit. I poured some cu into a saucer and dipped my jiaozi in it.
I was hooked. The vinegar’s pungent flavor just enhanced the meat in the dumpling. It was that good.
When I returned to Hawaii in 2012 and had my first Chinese dumpling outside of China, I had vinegar withdrawals. Jiaozi and cu are perfect together. To have one without the other was difficult for my taste buds because I love that sour flavor combined with the neutral flavor from the dumpling. I could not eat dumplings without my vinegar.
I looked high and low for Zhengjiang vinegar in the Asian section of my local supermarkets.
Nothing. I found soy, black bean, hoisin, and oyster sauce. I also found white and rice vinegar. But I could not find any Zhenjiang black vinegar.
Then one day my Dad said he wanted to go to Hilo to do some shopping. One of the places he wanted to go to was an Asian market because he wanted foo jook or dried bean curd sheets and this market sold imported Asian products.
I, of course, was happy to go with him.
While my Dad and his caregiver went shopping I went hunting for Zhengjiang vinegar.
I found it. It was pricey for a bottle of imported vinegar; close to $25. But I was happy as a clam to have a bit of China at home so I bought a bottle.
I did consume it all. In addition to using it on dumplings I eat it with fried rice and add it to my won ton soup as I did in China. But for me to travel an hour for a bottle of vinegar is very inconvenient. I needed an alternative.
I remember one of my fellow foreign teachers telling me as I was pouring cu on my rice that black vinegar looks, smells, and tastes similar to balsamic vinegar. I also remember walking to many upscale markets and even department stores and seeing imported balsamic vinegar on store shelves in China.
So I bought a bottle and tried it with fresh, homemade dumplings.
Oh so good! I felt I was back in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with steam streaming out of boiling pots and chefs making fresh dumplings and throwing them in a pot of boiling water or steaming them in bamboo steamers stacked a mile high. I could hear the clanging of plates and the noisy chatter among customers and restaurant workers.
I felt as if I was back in China.
But when I walk into a Chinese restaurant in Hawaii and see only soy sauce as the only sauce on the table I feel like screaming, “Where’s the cu?”
I felt like doing that one day when I decided to try a new restaurant in my hometown that sold noodle dishes. I was hoping to have another hole-in-the-wall restaurant experience and was glad to see that this restaurant sold pot stickers. They made it just like I’ve seen it cooked in China; pan fried in a cast iron pan. The dumplings are crispy on the bottom, adding more texture, flavor, and crunch to the dumpling.
Of course it tastes even better with Zhenjiang vinegar or balsamic vinegar. But this restaurant served my pot stickers with ponzu sauce.
Nothing wrong with ponzu sauce. My dumplings tasted great with it.
But I’m at a loss when in a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. They have soy sauce on the table. But where’s the cu? I fear the only way to remedy this is to carry my own bottle of vinegar.
But would I be very rude in bringing my own condiments to the restaurant? I fear having to confront a mean, old waiter who says, “You can’t bring your own condiments to this restaurant.” I get puzzled looks when I suggest using balsamic or black vinegar as dipping sauce for dumplings. People here are so use to consuming soy sauce.
However, the best way to have my black vinegar cravings fulfilled is to eat at home with a plate of fresh dumplings.
So here is my favorite recipe for jiaozi.
Won Ton Wrappers
1/3 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
- In a medium bowl beat the egg. Mix in the water.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Create a well in the center of the mixture and slowly pour in the egg and water. Mix well. If the mixture is too dry, increase the amount of water one teaspoon at a time until a pliable dough has formed.
- On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until elastic. Cut dough into two separate balls. Cover the balls with a damp cloth for a minimum of 10 minutes.
- Cut each ball into four equal pieces. Roll the pieces into 10 ½ by 10 ½ inch squares. Cut each into nine 3 ½ by 3 ½ inch squares. Use in any recipe that calls for won ton wrappers.
1 2 inch piece ginger, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 bunch of scallions
¾ lb ground pork
1 chicken or beef bouillon cube
- Mix chopped scallion with pork, ginger, and soy sauce. Cover and chill for 10 minutes.
- Take a wonton wrapper and place two teaspoon pork filling in center. With your finger dab the edges with water. Pinch edges together and place on floured cookie sheet.
- In a 6 to 8 quart pot of water add a beef or chicken bouillon cube to create soup stock. Bring to a boil. Gently drop dumplings into water. Do not over crowd. Stir gently to prevent sticking. Dumplings are cooked with they float.
- Transfer with slotted spoon to serving dish. Serve with – what else – black or balsamic vinegar.