Dumplings or pot-stickers?

February is around the corner, and yet I’m still getting season’s greeting cards from friends and relatives. The greeting cards convey best wishes for a happy and prosperous Year of the Rabbit. As it is, the Chinese Lunar New Year falls on February 3 this year. It is customary for families to reunite and enjoy a big feast together the night before. And many families, especially those who came from the northern part of China, will be making and eating dumplings and pot-stickers. These delicious bites are particularly fitting for the occasion as they take on the shape of gold ingots, and are taken as a sign of prosperity in the coming year. Think of the fortune cookies you’ve been getting at the Chinese restaurants. They are also made in the shape of gold ingots.

 

The dumplings are called 饺子(jiǎozi). They are usually steamed or cooked in boiling water. The pot-stickers, 锅贴(guōtiē), are pan-fried dumplings. Some recipes ask you to steam the dumplings then pan-fry them. I prefer to cook and pan-fry the pot-stickers in one step. If you have an hour or so to spare, you could make a batch of these tidbits yourself. If you can gather a couple friends to do this together, it will be so much more fun. There will be more mouths to feed, but you can cut down the time it takes to form the dumplings. Although they are called pot-stickers, you don’t really want the dumplings to stick to the pot. Therefore, a non-stick frying pan is called for. The following recipe uses cooked shrimp meat and does not include any raw meat. It is safe for use in a high school cooking class, except for students or teachers who are allergic to seafood.

Filling

1 lb Green Cabbage
1 Tbsp. Vegetable Oil for stir-frying the cabbage
1/2 tsp. Salt
5-6 stalks Green Onions (cleaned and finely chopped)
10 stalks Chinese Garlic Chives (optional)
1/2 lb. small cooked shrimp, finely chopped
1 tsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Sesame Seed Oil (optional)
1/4 tsp. Ground Black Pepper
2 tsp cornstarch

Wrappers

1 package Extra-thick Gyoza Wrappers (about 34 per package.)
 (Gyoza is the Japanese word for jiǎozi.)

 For pan-frying

3 Tbsp. Corn Oil for frying the pot-stickers

Sauce for Dipping

3 Tbsp Soy sauce
1 Tbsp. Vinegar
½ tsp. Water
1/8 tsp. Sesame Seed Oil (optional)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped (optional)

Steps:

 1. Cut the cabbage leaves into very thin shreds.

 Heat 1 Tbsp. of corn oil in a frying pan at MEDIUM HIGH until hot. Add the shredded cabbage and the 1/2 tsp. salt to the pan and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water, cover and cook 3 to 4 minutes until the cabbage looks limp. Do not overcook. Turn off the heat. When the cabbage has cooled down, transfer it to a cutting board and chop it finely.

2. Into a large mixing bowl, add the chopped cabbage, green onions, shrimp, sugar, sesame seed oil, and ground black pepper. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the mixture and stir until thoroughly mixed. You want to have about three and a half cups of filling.

3. Spread about 2 ft of clear plastic wrap on a clean, dry countertop. Layout 6 Gyoza wrappers at one end of the plastic wrap. Place about 1 Tbsp. of the filling at the center of each Gyoza wrapper. Moisten the tip of a pastry brush with water and go around the edges of each Gyroza wrapper. Fold the Gyoza wrapper over and pinch at the center. Pinch the two sides together to seal the pot-sticker well. Stand the pot-sticker up and push down slightly to form a flat bottom.

Arrange the 6 filled pot-stickers neatly at the other end of the plastic wrap. Repeat to assemble the next 6 pot-stickers. Continue until all the wrappers are used up.

4. Heat 3 Tbsp. of corn oil in a large flat non-stick frying pan at MEDIUM HIGH until hot. Carefully add 25-30 pot-stickers to the pan (depending on the size of the pan), arranging them in three neat columns. Push the pot-stickers close together, with the sides touching. Fry uncovered for 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and cover the pan with its lid. Cook covered for 7-8 minutes, or until done. The pot-stickers are done when the water in the pan has evaporated, oil reappears in the pan, and the bottom of the pot-stickers have turned golden crisp. Use a long flat wooden spatula to carefully scrape up the pot-stickers, 1/2 column at a time, and invert them onto a plate. (With this dish, the bottom side is the “nice” side.)  The sauce is quite strong. Go easy with the dipping.

 好吃!! (Hǎochī!) Delicious!

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How many Chinese characters do you know?

Even if you’ve never studied Chinese, I’ll bet you can claim to know a few Chinese characters right after reading this post. Take a look at these three characters:  yī ,   èr ,  sān.

They stand for “one”, “two” and, “three”. No kidding. However, unlike the sticks and slashes tally system, this logic does not carry to the higher numerals in Chinese. For example, the number “four” is presented by:  四 sì . This still makes sense as you can count a total of 4 corners in this character. Doesn’t this character look like a window with the curtains gathered to the sides? Here is a video of kids showing you how to count to 10 in Chinese along with the hand gestures used in Taiwan. And here is blog post that shows you how to write the Chinese characters that represent the numbers from 1 to 10.

Now, look at this character: rén. Imagine the two slanted strokes being the legs of a walking human being. That’s right. This character stands for a “person” or a “human being”.

All right! Now you know 5 Chinese characters. But how many characters does one need to learn to be able to read a typical contemporary Chinese novel? There is not a consensus, but the answer lies somewhere between 3000 and 5000.

Please don’t let this large number overwhelm you. You will be able to work with many documents after you have learned the basic set of about 2000 Chinese characters. In fact, you should be able to compose a simple letter after learning just 1000 characters. How to get from 5 to 1000? My calculator tells me that if you pick up 3 new characters a day, you will reach this goal in 334 days, i.e. within one year. What’s more, the learning process will get easier and easier as you become more and more familiar with the Chinese characters. This is because many Chinese characters actually share some easily recognizable parts, which are referred to as the “radicals”. For example, do you see the in the following two words?

仁  rén means “kindness”, and  nĭ  means “you”.

The shared “人” radical is compressed somewhat to make room for the other part of the character. Yes, each Chinese character in a normal string of Chinese characters occupies roughly the same amount of space no matter how many strokes it contains. This adds to the challenge of writing those complex characters that contain more than, say, 16 strokes.

Of course, if your objective is to just learn how to speak Chinese, then you don’t need to worry about reading and writing the Chinese characters. A good audio instruction program plus classroom interaction will suffice. Still, it will be advisable for you to learn the pinyin system so that you may be able to sound out the words in other helpful printed instruction material that provide the pinyin phonetic aid.

For the rest of you, maybe you will add this to your 2011 New Year’s resolution: Learn 3 new Chinese characters every day.

Pinyin or Bo Po Mo Fo?

I grew up learning how to read Chinese using the Zhuyin phonetic system.  This system consists of thirtysix consonant sounds and vowel sounds, each represented by a special symbol. The first 4 symbols are pronounced Bo, Po, Mo, and Fo. Therefore, the Zhuyin system is often referred to as the Bo Po Mo Fo system. It is still used by the schools in Taiwan.

No, we did not have a tune like the “ABCDEFG” song to help us learn the “alphabet”. The Bo Po Mo Fo sounds and symbols were simply crammed into us. The phonetic symbols and tone marks were placed alongside the Chinese characters in our textbooks so we would be able to sound out those even more complicated word symbols. It has been standard in Taiwan to print children’s story books and magazines with the Bo Po Mo Fo notation accompanying the Chinese characters.

I believe some Chinese instructors in the USA, who came from Taiwan, are using the Zhuyin phonetic system in their classes for the simple fact that the textbooks they have on hand employ the Bo Po Mo Fo notations.

Whereas the Zhuyin system involves special symbols, pinyin is made up entirely of letters from the English alphabet plus the tone marks. It’s a no-brainer that it will be a more intuitive phonetic system for the English-speaking students. It is also a natural for entering Chinese text using  the QWERTY keyboard – There is no need to remember which keys represent which special symbol, or to paste the Bo Po Mo Fo symbols on the keys as some of my friends do.

My vote goes to pinyin.

What’s the best way to learn Chinese?

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. For one thing, the Chinese characters bear no resemblance to written English. Secondly, whereas you might be able to correctly guess a few Spanish or German words even if you don’t speak the language, it is nearly impossible to do that with Chinese. (Benny Lewis disagrees with this point.) And yet, many Westerners have climbed the steep slope and successfully mastered Chinese as a second language.

To the beginner, this is often the first question that comes to mind: What’s the best way to learn Chinese? Of course. the answer is different for different people in different situations. Ideally, you are in an environment in which you interact with Chinese-speaking folks during all of your waking hours. In addition, you have a couple dedicated teachers to guide you in speaking, reading and writing Chinese. That would be unrealistic for most people. So, let’s look for the next best solution. In financial terms, what’s the least expensive way to learn the language in a short time?

Following are a few suggestions. Please feel free to add a comment based on your own experience in learning Chinese.

1. Learn the “pinyin” phonetic aid. This is equivalent to learning your “ABC” for English. Please see the article on the page titled “Pinyin Guide”.

2. Add a few words at a time to your Chinese vocabulary. There are now apps for mobile devices that help you learn a few Chinese words any time wherever you are.

3. Use a step-by-step Chinese language instruction book or electronic learning program as your main “textbook”. Also get a couple helpful supplemental books and DVDs. With “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”, I made it a point to include the Chinese characters, the pinyin as well as the English translation.

4. Get free instructions on the Internet. However, watch out for malicious sites.

5. If possible, attend a Chinese instruction class, such as those offered at community colleges.

6. Take every opportunity you have to talk or communicate with a Chinese-speaking person. Also, you will likely pick up new words and expressions by watching Chinese videos and movies.

7. Read about other people’s journey on the road to mastering Chinese as a foreign language. Here is an example.

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