Cookbook Review: Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen

Andrea Nguyen’s latest book, Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More (Ten Speed Press, 2009) is a stunner, demystifying delectable dishes from Malaysia to Mongolia.

Recipes in Asian Dumplings span three distinct subregions of Asia—East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. The book’s chapters are divided according to technique: filled pastas; thin skins; stuffed buns; rich pastries, etc.

Nguyen’s introduction is exceptionally informative and provides a perfect primer for what lies ahead. Cornstarch, for example, is found in both doughs and fillings. She explains, “In Asian dumpling making, cornstarch is used to bind fillings and to make dough. The silky fine starch contributes resiliency to superthin wonton and eggroll skins and prevents them from sticking. Cornstarch and tapioca starch have similar thickening powers, but when used in rice-flour batters, they show subtle differences. Cornstarch adds a firm-but-chewy quality, and tapioca provides elasticity.” Nguyen’s recipes are equally well thought-out and will have you mastering homemade wonton wrappers in no time.

Images in the book are a smart combination of diagrams and photos. The illustrations include thorough steps for a variety of folding and wrapping techniques. Do you know the difference between a pea pod, nun’s cap, or crescent? Nguyen shows you, step-by-step.

The drool-worthy photography is by Penny De Los Santos, whose images frequent the pages of Saveur. Careful thought has been given to images that are not only beautiful, but informative. Styling and camera angles reveal seams (as in the samosa folding technique) and well-thought out vantage points illustrate dumpling pleating techniques. When you’re stuck midway through a recipe and panic is just beginning to set in, sure enough, there’s a diagram or a photo, revealing the end goal. (This is especially helpful since many of the dishes were completely new to me.)

Arm chair cooks and travelers…there’s plenty here for you, too! Recipe header notes provide wonderful insights, and often expand into the dish’s ethnic, regional or historical context. I was thrilled to discover a recipe for one of my favorite street-side snacks, Sesame Seed Balls (page 201). In the accompanying header notes, I learned that Sesame Seed Balls are a Chinese New Year Specialty and likely originated in the Tang Dynasty as palace food. Nguyen explains that the dish varies by country. In Canton, they are filled with sweetened red mung bean paste, but in Vietnam, they are typically filled with buttery mung beans, resulting in a flavor and texture similar to marzipan. Ground peanuts are another option. Recipes are included for all three fillings, along with a discussion on mung bean varieties.

Whether you’re a seasoned aficionado, or merely dumpling-curious, Nguyen’s Asian Dumplings is a fabulous resource. Approachable, yet informed, this book has a prominent spot in my collection. The Pork and Napa Cabbage Water Dumplings deliver big on flavor and I was surprised how easily the water and flour-based wrappers came together (So pleased with my results, I kept thinking, “Look, mom, I made it!”). Next on my list? I’m torn between the Chinese Char Siu Pork Buns or the Singapore Curry Puffs. Even better, why choose? Share the adventure…and host a dumpling-making party! With a wealth of textures and tastes, this book is a perfect excuse for social gatherings. Chill the Singha & invite your friends for a DYI dumpling feast!

Hungry for more? Check out:

Andrea Nguyen
Book: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)

Penny De Los Santos