Peek into Ping's Dumplings in the International District and you'll often see a silhouette of Ping in her kitchen making dumplings. With a few decisive rolls of a small rolling pin, Ping forms a dumpling skin from a gnocchi-sized nubbin of dough, fills it with a small ball of filling and seals it with a series of delicate folds. Her dumplings sit on a tray like ducks in a row, doubling in quantity in a matter of minutes. Ping's dumplings hail from her hometown of Qingdao in northeastern China where dumplings and noodles reign supreme. She is known to most people only as Ping, and to her Chinese regulars as lao ban nian, "the boss lady." Like pasta to an Italian, Ping is quick to tell her customers what's what when it comes to northeastern dumplings, but she finds her peace during the off hours in the still and silent confines of her kitchen, doubling her tray of dumplings and thinking perhaps of the woman who inspired it all.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
For flour-based foods like noodles and dumplings, (northeastern) Shandong [province] is the best. Qingdao has a closer proximity to the ocean. Our main protein is seafood and our flavors are briny and rich.
The quality of a dumpling extends from the quality of the filling to the quality of the skin. Our dumpling skins are soft to the point of being supple and velvety. There is proper technique and appreciation behind this texture. With dumplings, it's not like you can just get a piece of dough and squeeze out a perfect dumpling. There are soft ones, there are harder ones. People from Northeast China would always say, "Soft dough for dumplings but firm dough for noodles." That is our saying. The dough for a dumpling can't be hard and tough. It should have a chew, but be tender. This is when it's good.
These are passed down from my grandmother. It's authentic, and everyone likes authentic now. A lot of Americans come to my restaurant now, not even to say northeastern Chinese. They'll come and say, "Oh, it's good and the price is good."
When did start making dumplings?
When did start making dumplings?
When I was very young, a little girl, maybe around five [years old]. I was with my grandma. She would make it beside me and I loved it. I loved watching her and I loved learning to make it. I stood beside her making it. That was my family tradition.
I didn't know how to make it then but she would hand me a piece of dough for me to knead and work. Then, she taught me to roll it out. The rest, I don't quite remember. It just began like that. Whatever my grandmother was making, I'd be there beside her. As long as I didn't have school, I'd be there. I never went out to play. I just wanted stay with her.
My grandmother raised a lot of us kids. My uncle, my mother, and the younger ones. She was the matriarch. All three meals were on her. So when she would cook, I'd want to cook with her. When she would sew, I'd want to sew with her. No matter what she did, I wanted to do it with her. My younger brother and sister had no interest in these things. Only I had an interest.
What do you say to customers to help them better understand Northeastern Chinese flavors or Qingdao cuisine?
They often look at the menu and ask where Qingdao is. If you mention Qingdao to someone who doesn't know it well, they usually associate it with the beer. Then they'll look up the map and say, "Oh, Qingdao is right here near the ocean," or they'll compare it to being a certain distance from Beijing or Shanghai.
With northeastern Chinese cuisine, most people order dumplings, but we have some noodle dishes that are pretty good. Like our beef noodles and da lu mien (pork with shredded vegetables noodles), which my menu labels as "Grandmother Noodles." The Americans are very interested in these names. The other is "Uncle Noodles", zha jian mien (a ground pork and soy bean paste noodle). Americans are actually very traditional too. They look highly upon this sense of family and express a great interest in family ties.
So the da lu mien or "Grandmother Noodles" is your grandmother's recipe?
Right, right. It's like a personal history that I can share with people.
Then what is the relationship between your uncle and the zha jiang mien?
I learned how to make zha jiang mien from my uncle. My uncle went to Hong Kong at a young age. He also became a cook. My uncle makes great food, so I had a bit of his influence. I grew up at my grandmother's house but I learned the zha jiang mien from him. The recipe has undergone some change since then. I made it my own by adding soybean threads and healthier additions.
Can you explain a little bit about the fish dumpling?
Oh, the ba yu dumpling. This type of dumpling is the kind where if you're in Qingdao and you want to open a dumpling house, you have to have this dumpling. Using the mackerel in Qingdao for dumplings is extremely delicious. The fish is large, the flesh is fatty. You skin and gut the fish and the flesh is hand pounded. In Qingdao, that fish was fished fresh out of the water, its flesh still briny. Once you bite into those dumplings. ... Wow. Just amazing. In America, you can't really find anything like it. When other northeastern Chinese patrons come to the restaurant, they'll see that we have this item and say, "Oh fantastic! You have the fish dumplings."
How long were you making dumplings before you were able to make ones that you felt were perfect or at restaurant level?
This kind of tactile feel isn't one you can acquire in a day. I started when I was very young and I've been making it for over forty years! The filling on the other hand, is something that you learn by feel, something that comes from the heart. It's based on feel, based on taste — where one develops a sense of, "Hey, I can add some of this and it will taste better."
Anyone can make food. But why is it that when some people make food it's great and when others make food it isn't good? One is having ample control of the flame and the other is the timing at which one adds ingredients. It's an accumulation of time and experience. Our Chinese custom is that we go by feel as opposed to other customs that rely more on measurements. Both provide a sense of how much of each ingredient we should be adding. For example, flour, meat, vegetables, ginger, or water. You can't just add perfunctory amounts for any of these.
Where do people tend to go wrong in the dumpling making process?
The skin is very important. Most people by the skins because they can't roll out the skin or knead the dough properly. Many people also struggle to seal it and shape it properly. Every step of the dumpling making process is important including cooking it and how far to carry on the cooking for.