The first time I had gyoza was probably ten years ago, at Sapporo, a cheap Japanese noodle bar on rue Sainte Anne, not far from the Opera. The tender dumplings with the crispy bottoms were something I’d never heard of, yet from that first bite, a sideways maneuver with chopsticks, first dipped into the black vinegary sauce, I quickly learned that these were not for sharing.
I went back often. I always sat at a long bar in front of the cooktops that kept enormous pots of stock warm and watched as ramen orders came in and tangles of noodles were put in bowls, then covered with broth. The gyoza were made by hand just beyond the soup station.
Not long ago I saw a story in The New York Times about a Chinese chef who lives in the Bronx, Helen You, who makes dumplings by hand, along with a recipe for the dough and one of the most basic fillings, made with pork and chives. As much as I like the idea of making my own wrappers, I was more intrigued by the nontraditional fillings that You put in her dumplings, beyond the pork and chive recipe — chicken and broccoli, lamb and squash soup — I figured if she could break the rules, then so could I.
Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, but I never let that stop me before.
My dumplings could be filled with whatever I want, I told myself.
So, sweet potatoes — roasted first in a hot oven with red pepper flakes and a sprinkle of ginger — and spinach it would be.
I know these look difficult to make. But they are the easiest things I’ve ever put together — simpler, even, than rolling an enchilada. Imagine a round disc, flat on your board. You just put a small spoonful of the sweet potato mixture in the middle, then dip a finger into water and run it along the edge of the bottom half of the circle. Fold over the top. Seal with your fingers by pinching it. Then fold the edges. That is all you do. No egg wash. No delicate handling.
You will want to use round rice wrappers for the job, which are available at most Asian stores on any side of the pond. Other than that, the rest of the ingredients are available at a regular grocery store.
As I was making these rogue Japanese-style dumplings while sitting at my kitchen table, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much fun it was to make something that I loved so much, and haven’t tasted since my friend Besti and I went to that same Japanese place more than a year ago. Just like my first time, I ordered off of the plastic-coated menu with photos of every dish and descriptions in Japanese and French, drank a Kirin, and waited for my oval plate of a half-dozen gyoza to arrive.
Sweet Potato + Spinach Dumplings
- 2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 pound-ish)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- big pinch salt
- 1 (10-ounce) box chopped spinach, thawed
- 1-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 3 scallions, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 package (32) dumpling wrappers
- canola oil
- Dipping sauce
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Peel the sweet potatoes and chop into 1-inch cubes. Toss them on a large baking sheet with olive oil, red pepper flakes, powdered ginger and salt. Roast for 30 minutes or until browned, turning once. Let cool.
Save time: Roast the sweet potatoes a day in advance and keep them in the fridge.
- Squeeze as much water out of the spinach as you can. A potato ricer is perfect for this, but if you don’t have one, just squeeze it out with your hands.
- Make the dumpling filling. Put the sweet potatoes and spinach in a medium bowl along with the minced ginger, scallions, and soy sauce, and mix until combined. Taste for seasonings.
- Place a piece of parchment paper on a large baking sheet for your dumplings and dust it lightly with flour or rice flour. This is what you’ll put the dumplings on after you make them.
- To make the dumplings, set up your production area. You’ll need: the sweet potato-spinach filling, dumpling wrappers, a small bowl of water, and a clean surface to lay the wrappers on (I used my largest cutting board).
- Put 1 teaspoon of the filling into the center of the wrapper. Dip a finger into the water and run it along the bottom half of the wrapper. Fold the top half over, pressing it down onto the wet edge, making sure to get all of the air out. Pick up the dumpling and make a small fold in the center and work to the right, making small folds, one on top of the other. Then do the left side. If you notice the one side of the wrapper not adhering to the other, simply dip your finger back in the water to seal it. Put the filled dumpling onto the large baking sheet. Repeat until you’ve filled all of them.
Save time: Do the dumpling stuffing in advance and keep these in the fridge, covered, until you’re ready to cook them.
- To cook the dumplings, you’ll need a large skillet with a lid. Pour just enough canola oil in the skillet to coat the bottom, along with 3 tablespoons water — it sounds weird, but bear with me. This is so you’ll fry the bottoms, then let them steam. Turn the heat to medium, and add as many dumplings as you can fit into the skillet. Put the lid on and let cook for 3 or 4 minutes, just until the bottoms brown. Reduce the heat to low and let them cook for 2 more minutes or until the dumplings become translucent. Repeat with the rest of the dumplings or freeze the ones you don’t want to eat right away.
- Whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. Serve with the hot dumplings.