At her home in Portland, Sally Ng pulls finished dumplings from a pot of boiling water. Dumplings are traditional for Chinese New Year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

This month, as Chinese New Year takes us from the Year of the Rabbit to the traditionally auspicious and prosperous Year of the Dragon, we’re spotlighting one of the holiday’s most beloved foods: dumplings.

Many of the dishes customarily served at Chinese New Year celebrations symbolize good fortune. Steamed whole fish symbolizes abundance, for instance, and is set at the table with the head pointing to the host or the guest of honor, while longevity noodles – wheat-flour noodles 12 to 18 inches long – symbolize long life and are meant to be slurped whole and unbroken for good luck.

Among the most iconic and popular dishes for the Chinese New Year, a roughly 15-day celebration that begins on Saturday, dumplings represent wealth, because the tasty little bundles resemble money purses. When they’re formed akin to tortellini, with the edges circled around to meet in the front, they’re said to look like ancient Chinese gold and silver ingots.

“My mother said, ‘You don’t want to get to New Year without having dumplings.’ It’s just that important,” said Sally Ng, of Portland, co-founder of the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine. “Like when you have Thanksgiving, you have to have a turkey. I remember (growing up) having a big feast for dinner on New Year’s Eve, but before we sleep, we have to have dumplings.”

Variety is part of their appeal. There are dozens of different kinds of Chinese dumplings with fillings like ground meat, seafood, vegetables and even soup broth, and wrappers that range from flour doughs to fluffy mini omelets to pulverized meat-and-sweet potato mixtures.

Dumplings can be boiled, steamed or pan-fried – that last a two-step process that starts with browning the dumplings and finishes with steaming them. Bath-based Chinese cookbook author Chris Toy likes to tell the lore behind the origin of pan-fried pot stickers, one of the most popular kinds of dumplings.


“They were invented by a cook desperate to save his life,” Toy said, explaining that about 1,000 years ago in China’s Imperial Court, a chef mistakenly left the emperor’s dumplings – his favorite daily snack – boiling too long. So long, in fact, that the water had evaporated, leaving the tender dumplings to brown and crisp in the dry pan. In a panic, he added some water to the pot, causing an explosion of steam, then lidded the pot until the extra water cooked off.

The chef then told the emperor he’d invented a new crispy-bottomed steamed dumpling. “The emperor tries one,” Toy said.  “He says, ‘I don’t like these. I love them.’ ”

Qaiozeng Wang cuts the dough into small pieces for the dumplings at the home of his friends Sally and Ahkau Ng. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Making a big batch of dumplings is the kind of repetitive, crafty kitchen work that can feel almost meditative or therapeutic. It’s also a great project for a group, as some folks can be assigned to making the dough, others to the filling, and still more to forming the dumplings.

In China and among many Chinese American families, dumplings are practically synonymous with family at Chinese New Year. “They bring people together,” Ng said. “You see how much is involved from making the dough to the filling, so when everybody is home, we participate in the process. It’s a family reunion time, and for us, it’s a family event.”

We talked with Ng, Toy and other Maine-based dumpling authorities to glean their wisdom. Follow their smart tips and try their scrumptious recipes, and you may end up with a new tradition of your own. Though don’t limit yourself to making them only on Chinese New Year: Dumplings are just as delicious all year-round.



Our experts said there’s no shame in using store-bought dumpling or wonton wrappers from an Asian market, since they perform well and are so convenient and easy to use.

But scratch dumpling dough is quite simple to make, and it definitely boosts the therapeutic factor of the whole cooking project. We’re talking two ingredients – all-purpose flour and water, with maybe a pinch of salt – stirred together or blended in a food processor or stand mixer until a dough ball forms, then kneaded a couple of times to reach the right consistency.

Jeff Mao, a Topsham-based cookbook author, cooking instructor and dumpling specialist with a self-professed “fixation on dough,” said a good rule of thumb for dumpling dough is roughly two parts flour to one part water, measured by weight – a ratio that most published recipes heed. The goal is to create a malleable dough that is easy to shape, yet firm enough to hold its form while cooked.

The temperature of the water is also key. Mao explained that some dumpling recipes call for hot water, which denatures the flour proteins and forms less gluten. The resulting dough is soft, delicate and less stretchy, making it well suited for steamed dumplings that won’t be jostled in boiling water or a frying pan.

Cold water will make a more elastic dough that’s sturdy enough to hold up to boiling and pan-frying.

Qiaozeng Wang, of Portland, who recently led a dumpling-making party at Ng’s West End home, used warm water, aiming to split the difference and make a Goldilocks dough – neither too firm nor too soft, but suited for both boiling and pan-frying. His dough ball was forgiving enough so that when you pressed it with your finger, the indentation remained.


Mao said it’s important to rest the dough – in a bowl covered with a clean tea towel to keep it from drying out – before shaping it into wrappers. The rest period allows the starch to fully absorb the water, making the dough smoother and more supple as it hydrates.

From left, Qaiozeng Wang, Ahkau Ng and Joris Weimar make dumplings at the Ngs’ home in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Of the many dumpling filling options, among the most common are pork and shrimp, with a blend of the two being a top third choice; vegetable dumplings are also popular. Our sources said ground pork from the supermarket will work just fine, though you can choose a fattier cut like pork shoulder and have it ground at the market – the freshly ground meat offers richer flavor and texture, while its relatively high fat content helps keep the filling moist.

For flavorings, Toy leans on three aromatics foundational to Chinese cuisine: fresh ginger root, garlic and green onions, a trio akin to the mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot in classic French cooking or the “Cajun trinity” of onion, celery and bell pepper.

“If you cook with those three ingredients, it’ll smell like a Chinese restaurant,” Toy said with a sly smile.

Typical veggies in Chinese dumplings include mushrooms, cabbage and spinach. Ng likes the light verdant sweetness Napa cabbage brings to a dumpling filling.


And of course the vegetables and aromatics bring textural variety to the dish, as well. “In the Chinese food world, mouthfeel and texture is as important as flavor,” Mao said. “Like crunchy versus soft versus chewy or slippery.”

Mao said stirring the filling mixture vigorously helps both to blend the components and ensure they hang together better. The well-stirred proteins become slightly pasty so they will form more cohesive “meatballs” inside the dumplings.

Qaiozeng Wang pinches the dough closed around the filling. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Wang rolled out inch-wide ropes of his supple warm-water dough, then cut the ropes into small chunks weighing about a quarter-ounce each. Using a Chinese rolling pin (shorter and thinner than Western pins), he rolled each dough chunk into a circle 2 ½ to 3 inches across. He rolled the edges thinner than the centers, since they’ll be doubled up once the dumplings are shaped.

Wang usually makes about 25 dumplings per person for a Chinese New Year gathering. Ng said both she and Wang come from the Hebei province in northern China, where dumplings are more popular than in the south, and so they’ll constitute a main course.

To fill the fresh dough wrappers, Wang and Ng placed 1-2 teaspoons of their pork, shrimp and veggie mixture in the center of a wrapper, folded it in half, then crimped and pinched the edges to seal, creating a half-moon dumpling with a flat bottom. The soft, fresh dough was easy to handle and shape – not just because Wang and Ng are experienced – and didn’t require any complicated pleating or crimping (though if you’re dexterous enough and motivated, artful crimping makes the dumplings feel even more special).


If you choose store-bought wrappers, Toy said they’re easier to seal if you moisten both sides of the edges, not just the sides that pinch together. To do this, he rolls the perimeter of the round wrappers through a shallow bowl of water before filling them.

To seal, Toy makes single pleats at the wrapper’s 10, 11, 12, 1 and 2 o’clock positions, forming a kind of hatch shell around the filling. He then takes the 6 o’clock point of the wrapper and folds it over the filling so it meets the 12 o’clock point, then presses the edges to seal completely.

Cookbook writer Chris Toy fries pork-filled pot stickers at his home in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Dumplings can be steamed, but it helps to have bamboo steamers to make them. So we’re focusing here on boiled dumplings and pan-fried pot stickers, which require no special equipment.

Boiled dumplings are often the go-to choice for home cooks hosting Chinese New Year feasts, Mao said, since the other methods are more of a logistical challenge. “Boiling is the simplest, fastest way to cook a lot of dumplings, so it definitely makes it easier for big gatherings,” he said.

One pitfall of boiled dumplings is that the thin pasta wrapper can overcook and break apart before the filling has a chance to cook all the way through. “Not that we’re looking for al dente wrappers, but we should avoid mushy,” Mao said.


Ng demonstrated how Chinese cooks avoid this outcome by adding a cup or so of cold water to the boiling water twice as the dumplings cook, bringing the pot back to a boil each time. The cold water infusions let the dumplings cook a little longer at a lower temperature, heating them more evenly and keeping the wrapper from bloating or tearing.

“I talk about this method in my dumpling classes.” Mao said. “I say it’s the ancient Chinese sous vide, a practical way to manage the temperature. And I think that’s what every Chinese grandmother says: Three boils, we’re done.”

While it might seem like gently simmering the dumplings for slightly longer would solve the issue, Mao notes that the cold-water method likely predates modern stoves and is a relic from the age of live-fire home cooking, when a low, steady simmer wasn’t so easily achieved. He said another rule of thumb applies to boiled dumplings, cold-water technique or not: “When your dumplings are floating, they’re probably cooked.”

Pot sticker pans need water added too, and even more carefully. Toy uses avocado oil to brown the dumplings because of its high smoke point, though canola and safflower oil would also work well. Once the bottoms start to turn light golden, Toy adds 2 tablespoons of water to the pan, using the lid to shield himself from any spatters and steam clouds, then keeps the lid on while the dumplings steam. By the time the water evaporates, the bottoms have finished browning and the dumplings are ready to serve.

Pan-fried and boiled dumplings, along with a tray of freshly made uncooked dumplings, sit on the table at Sally and Ahkau Ng’s home in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Many Westerners might be content to use soy sauce all by itself as a dipping sauce for dumplings. Mao said Chinese dumplings fans couldn’t rest there.


“A Chinese person would never use straight soy sauce,” he said. “It’d be soy sauce and something else. Soy by itself would be a little too salty and straight on.”

More typical is a combination, such as soy sauce with a little sesame oil and vinegar. Some cooks use milder rice vinegar or Chinkiang (Chinese black vinegar, available at Asian markets), which is syrupy like balsamic but less sweet, while others prefer the acidic intensity of white vinegar.

Toy and Ng brought a little heat to their sauces by using spicy sesame oil and chili crisp condiments. Mao noted that aromatic flavorings are also welcome in a dumpling dipper, like toasted sesame seeds or chopped fresh cilantro, and of course you can’t go wrong with any or all of the Chinese trinity: fresh ginger, garlic and green onion.

“I advise people to just go crazy, make your own version of a sauce and see what you like,” Mao said.

A plate of pan-fried dumplings made by Sally Ng. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Pork and Shrimp Dumplings with Homemade Wrappers
Recipe from Qiaozeng Wang and Sally Ng

Makes 40 dumplings


2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 cup warm water
3/4 pound ground pork or beef
10 ounces cooked shrimp without shell, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1 teaspoon peeled, chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound Napa cabbage and/or thawed frozen spinach, chopped

To make the wrappers, mix the flour, salt and warm water, stirring with chopsticks until well blended; knead the dough until the surface is smooth, let the dough rest at least 20 minutes (covering with a towel to prevent drying). Knead and rest once more.

To make the filling, combine the ground meat, shrimp and next seven ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Mix the ingredients until very well blended and meat grows slightly pasty and sticky. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Add the chopped vegetables to the meat in bowl (squeeze any extra water out first, particularly if using thawed frozen spinach); mix well until fully blended.

Divide the dough into 40 equal pieces. With a small rolling pin, flatten and roll each piece into 2 ½ to 3-inch rounds, using extra flour as needed to keep dough from sticking.

Place about 1 tablespoon filling in the center of a wrapper. Using both hands, fold the sides together, crimp and pinch to seal the edges, flattening the bottom of the dumpling in your palm.


Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Working in batches, drop about 1/3 of the dumplings into the pot. When water returns to a boil, add 1 cup of cold water to pot. When water again returns to a boil, add another cup of cold water. Once the water again returns to a boil and dumplings are floating, remove from water and drain well. Repeat with the remaining two batches.

If you prefer, you can simply cook the dumplings in boiling water for seven minutes or until they float; remove from water and drain well.

Serve with dipping sauce of your liking.

Cookbook writer Chris Toy makes pork-filled pot stickers at his home in Bath. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Pot Stickers
The recipe is from Chris Toy’s 2020 “Easy Chinese Cookbook.”

Makes 48 pot stickers

1 pound ground pork
5 scallions, chopped
4 ounces mushrooms, chopped
2 tablespoons crushed and chopped fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 (12-ounce) package round wonton wrappers
Vegetable oil, for frying
Room temperature water for steaming
Soy sauce and vinegar for dipping sauce


Use a Chinese cleaver or chef’s knife to chop together the pork, scallions, mushrooms, ginger, garlic and hoisin sauce.

Fill a small bowl with water. Dip the perimeter of the wonton wrapper in a shallow bowl of water, wetting both sides around the edge.

Place 1 teaspoon of filling horizontally on the center of a wonton wrapper. At the 12 o’clock position (top center) of the wrapper, make a pleat and flatten it. Repeat at the 1, 2, 11 and 10 o’clock positions to form an open pocket around the filling. Bring the edge of the 6 o’clock position up to the pleat at 10 o’clock and press to seal the edges together. Repeat process with remaining filling and wrappers.

Seal the dumplings by pressing along all the edges, then press down gently on the dumplings to form a flat base.

Cover the bottom of a medium skillet with oil and heat over medium-high heat.

Place the dumplings in the pan, working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan; fry for 1 to 2 minutes until the bottoms are golden brown.

Partially cover pan and carefully add about 2 tablespoons water. Immediately cover the pan completely to keep steam inside and spattering to a minimum.

Steam the dumplings for 2 minutes. Lower the heat and lift the cover away from you so the steam and any oil are directed away from your face. Transfer dumplings to a serving dish and repeat process with remaining dumplings.

Serve immediately with dipping sauce.

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