After living in Singapore for 17 years my family returned to the UK last summer. Friends have been asking me what I miss the most and I think my answer is without fail “the food.” Singapore offers all the best bits of Asian cuisines. The street food is cheap, tasty and you don’t question the hygiene.
When I was younger I was pretty skeptical about some of the Chinese restaurants my dad chose. In part this might have been due to his translations of the Chinese banners outside; every other Sunday evening we would sit under a red and white awning by the roadside at a restaurant he referred to as “The Dead Cat.” Despite being a family favourite, the name made me wary so I stuck to rice and vegetables and avoided anything too adventurous. As it turns out the restaurant was actually called “The Red Lantern.”
My family have always been up for trying local vegetarian places when travelling, and we have certainly found some memorable spots! After a long morning of biking around temples and dusty back roads in Bagan, Burma, we came across a wonderful vegetarian restaurant. The sign outside read “Be Kind To Animals The Moon.” Perfect. The restaurant was open air and under a canopy of foliage and bougainvillaea. The menu offered all sorts of curious things, including “Moon Splif Bean Soup!” We had a delicious tea leaf salad. It reminded us of a time in Bejing when we ate at a much more upmarket vegetarian restaurant that had the most mysterious menu. Not one thing was recognisable as food, but since I was safe in the knowledge it was all veggie I could just put my fate in their hands and order things like “Deep Breath Wild Chinese Yam Tonify The Spleen Soup Cup,” or “Moonlit Night, The Morning Saint Confirms Truth Daikon Radish Kelp Augment the QI Soup,” and for dessert: “Loving Heart of a Rabbit Mother (carrot cake).”
In Singapore I was introduced to Real Foods, an all natural vegetarian place that did the most delicious dumplings. You could order them steamed or fried, and I have no idea what was in them! In my attempt at recreating these dumplings I thought it would be a good idea to make the dumpling wrappers too. That turned out to be quite a fiddly, time-consuming process. If you have the time then its quite therapeutic and you can make squillions and freeze the ones you don’t use, but otherwise you could just use pre-made dumpling wrappers.
Start by making the filling, and if you have a food processor you can save yourself a lot of time here! Blitz up the onion, garlic and ginger and get it frying in a wok or large frying pan with a few drops of sesame oil and a few drops of vegetable oil. While that starts to cook, chop up the carrots, cavolo nero (you could also use kale or any other type of cabbage here), mushrooms and broccoli, either by hand into very small bits or in the food processor. Add all the vegetables to the wok and stir into the onions, let all of that fry on a medium-high heat for about 5-10 minutes.
I don’t use tofu much, mostly because over my years in Asia my bad experiences with flubbery rubbery tofu tended to outweigh the good. I know it can be delicious, but it’s not the first thing I look for on a menu. Having said that, this meal was lacking in protein and I thought it was about time I gave tofu another chance. I used a smallish chunk in case it totally ruined the dumplings and wrapped the slimy brick in kitchen towel and left it to press between two plates to get the majority of the excess liquid out (at least I think thats why you do it…!) Once it was pressed and dried for about 15 minutes I unwrapped it and it crumbled just the way I wanted it to into the vegetable mixture. Add the soy sauce and mirin and stir everything up on the heat for another 5 minutes. Take it off the heat before you tear up the fresh coriander and add that. Set this mixture aside to cool completely.
You can make your wrappers now, or make them before the vegetable mixture, just don’t let them dry out! Sift the flour into a bowl and dissolve the salt in hot water. Slowly add the water into the flour mixing as your go. You will probably need to add more water, so add in a few more drops to pull the dough together and then knead for about 10 minutes on a floured surface. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside for 20 minutes to half an hour. I rolled mine out in a pasta machine (to setting 5 on the Atlas) and used a scone cutter to make the circles, but you could also just use a rolling pin and any cutter or glass top. Keep them from drying out by covering with a damp tea-towel and then fill then up by placing a heaped teaspoon of mixture into the centre, dip your finger in water and run it along the outside of the wrapper-circle and then fold over and pinch the edges together. You can also do all sorts of frilly things if you ask youtube. Pinch the two corners together and then put the dumpling back under the damp tea towel.
The dumplings will take about 10 minutes to steam. In that time you can mix all the ingredients for the dipping sauce together in a bowl. Along with the dumplings we had kale stir-fried in onion, garlic and vegetarian oyster sauce, which is tricky to find, but worth the hunt! I even went as far as to squish up a couple more slices of tofu to marinate in the same mixture as the dipping sauce and pan fry in black sesame. The good news is that I actually enjoyed tofu! You can also fry the dumplings in oil until crispy and serve with chilli sauce or the same dipping sauce. The filling mixture makes a lot, so you can either make a mountain of dumplings and freeze what you don’t eat, or just freeze the filling in a zip-lock bag.