Food plays such an important role in our memories of the past. I’m sure you have this experience with a flavor or meal – a type of cake your mother makes you for special occasions; the taste of a street food from a trip to someplace faraway and exotic; a special dinner you only eat on certain holidays or for special occasions. Helen You describes dumplings as one such food from her childhood, and in 2014 she turned that love into the restaurant Dumpling Galaxy in Flushing, New York. Just last month, she released her first cookbook of the same name. As an avid cookbook collector with a love of Asian food and culture, it only seems appropriate that the first full cookbook review here on Feast In Thyme is this small but packed volume, The Dumpling Galaxy by Helen You with Max Falkowitz.
Flipping through the pages, I immediately recalled my experience making Tibetan-style dumplings (called momos) some 8 years ago. In the summer of 2009, I took part in a Tibetan language intensive at the University of Virginia. In addition to language, we were immersed in the activities of the local Tibetan community and introduced to traditional Himalayan foods. While not identical, many of the culinary traditions of the Tibetan plateau and Northern China (where Helen You traces her roots), share similar techniques and flavor profiles. Reading the step-by-step guide on how to make and form dumpling dough into little packets to be steamed or boiled, I couldn’t help but fondly remember my hands-on lessons from those teachers. I couldn’t wait to try my hand at making dumplings again.
Even if you don’t have your own particular nostalgia for dumplings, You’s introduction and instructions invite the reader into her kitchen, revealing the possibilities of this diverse and delicious food. While the techniques themselves may be a bit more challenging for the beginner, her instructions are clear and concise for a homecook with some level of culinary experience. Through its whimsical design and approachable style, this compact volume shares You’s passion for dumplings with the world.
Unboxing The Dumpling Galaxy
Photographs of The Dumpling Galaxy do not do it enough justice. As I pulled it out of its package, I was impressed by the smooth embossed binding and how nicely the textured pages show off Ed Anderson’s photographs. The spine seems strong yet flexible enough for the book to lie flat, allowing it to be used more easily in the kitchen. The “galactic” theme of the title is carried throughout its pages, which feature stylized star-scapes and cartoon constellations. The cookbook is smaller in size, packing a lot in a little package (like dumplings themselves).
Organization and Contents
In addition to a short but heartfelt introduction, acknowledgements section, and index, The Dumpling Galaxy is organized into six sections. The first, Chinese Dumplings 101, is a succinct overview. It provides the necessary lingo and tools, step-by-step guides for making dough from scratch and forming dumpling shapes, and descriptions of the three most popular ways of preparing dumplings – boiling, steaming, and pan frying. This is followed by sections of recipes: Classic Dumplings (featuring fillings common in Northern China); Green Dumplings (with vegetarian fillings); Faraway Flavors (more creative and non-traditional dumplings of You’s own invention); Dessert Dumplings (self-explanatory); and finally, Sauces and Sides.
There are over 40 individual dumpling recipes in the cookbook. The instructions appear clear and include significant instruction for each step. While some have long lists of ingredients, many are simple, making them more suitable for weeknight dinners. Of all of these, a few stood out to me immediately:
- Pork Soup Dumplings: The book starts off with a detailed instruction of a potentially challenging traditional Chinese dumpling. Soup dumplings are not dumplings served in a soup, but rather dumplings that contain a gelatin-based aspic that, when steamed, turns into broth you can slurp out of its delicate dough wrapper. If you’ve never had them, they are a real treat. I’d love to try my hand at them at home.
- Three Mushroom Dumplings: A vegetarian option that “eats as if it’s made of meat” per the chef.
- Spicy Beef Dumplings: Like all of You’s pan-fried dumplings, these bar-friendly bites use an interesting pan frying technique that connects all of the dumplings together with a flour-vinegar slurry, resulting in something like an extra crispy pancake of interconnected dumplings.
- Chicken and Broccoli Dumplings: This simple take on the popular Chinese take-out dish looks like a crowd-pleaser.
- Crab and Chive Dumplings: I’m always a sucker for crab meat. Combining that with less expensive cod in the filling makes this sound like a nice and light steamed option to try.
While I haven’t tested any of the recipes myself yet, I hope to experiment with at least one of the dumplings featured in The Dumpling Galaxy soon so that I can share the results.
Praise and Critique
Overall, I think The Dumpling Galaxy is a beautiful little niche cookbook. It has a simple but inspiring composition, and I love the straightforward list of tools and gadgets recommended for making dumpling dough from scratch. I immediately picked up a pastry cutter and a small bamboo dough roller off Amazon, and got both for less than $20. I also adore the little tips and tricks throughout the book, which provide insight into northern Chinese traditions and helpful ideas for substitutions. These add an intimate touch that makes it feel like You is personally helping you learn her craft.
For all my praise, I do have a few critiques. As much as I like the tight focus of the general introduction, it felt limited once I started flipping through the rest of the cookbook. As noted above, the “Chinese Dumpling 101” section only really reviews three types of dumplings and two dumpling shapes. While You notes that there are many more, it did read to me like this introduction should cover the majority of the recipes in the book. I found however that The Dumpling Galaxy contains a much greater variety of shapes and types upon closer examination. I don’t specifically take issue with a diverse collection, but I would have liked to have seen some mention of those other shapes and techniques earlier on. Their sudden inclusion took me by surprise as I tried to decide what to make first.
Along the same vein, I do wonder how someone uninitiated into dumplings would do with the step-by-step instructions for making and shaping dough. The images of finger placement and folding were not quite as clear as I would have liked. I’m not sure if I could only make sense of it due to my previous experience with making dumplings, and even so it took some effort to decipher the instructions.
Despite these notes, my biggest complaint with The Dumpling Galaxy is that it might be too short! Each of the recipes have something unique about them. There are plenty of options, but I would have been happy to read about even more. This could potentially leave the door open for a sequel – Perhaps one with more dessert options, side dishes, sauces, and elaborations on the odder shapes and styles introduced in this book.
The Dumpling Galaxy is a fun and informative introduction to making one of the most crowd-pleasing and diverse dishes in Asian cuisine. Whether you are up to the challenge of making dumplings for the first time, or would simply like some new ideas to add to your repertoire, it makes for a great addition to a diverse cookbook collection. I look forward to utilizing You’s techniques and filling my home (and my stomach) with my own constellation of these tiny delights. In that, I think Helen You’s mission to spread the joy of dumplings is a success.