If you are living in China as an expatriate, so far from home, “lost” in this foreign and exotic country, the first and the main relationship you are weaving is certainly the one with your Ayi.
This lovely name which means “aunty”, defines a multitasking streetwise Chinese domestic helper who is usually dealing with household chores, food shopping, babysitting and cooking and is literally a life saver who helps us to survive, communicate and deal with everyday problem. In the beginning, the cultural differences and the language barrier created a lot of communication problems but then, little by little, east met west and we got to know each other better and became mutually confident.
Surely one of the grounds where the relationship is strengthening is the kitchen. The tai tai (the Madam) and the Ayis are often cooking together disclosing to each other old family tips: “My mum used this herbs from Hanui as a secret ingredient to make the taste better” … “my Emilian grand mother liked the ragú to be done this way”. Oh yes, the Ayis are as curious about what and how we cook and eat as we are about the Chinese cooking and they are willing to learn to cook the most well-known western dishes.
My best sellers have been ragú, pizza and any kind of traditional Italian pasta sauces, this way I have gained my exchange lessons on fried rice and dumplings making.
The world famous dumplings are my favorite Chinese dish ever. Their meat and vegetable juicy filling is a real delicacy even for the most demanding palate. Some Ayi are really mastering the art and are able to make the jiaozi – the local version of the dumplings – so quickly and perfectly, that you can hardly believe your eyes.
The pre-made jiaozi pi (the dumpling wrapper) can be bought in any local supermarket or made at home simply with flour and water but this is quite easy, the filling and the making are another story.
Among hundreds of varieties of jiaozi, the most classic one is the half moon shaped dough filled with minced pork and Chinese cabbage: meat and veggie should be mixed together with finely chopped ginger and leek, soy sauce, a row egg and a touch of rice wine and salt; once the mixture has been properly done, here we are to the hand making. To make the perfect jiaozi, you should place a spoon of filling onto a wrapper, slightly off center, dip finger in water to moisten the edges of the wrapper and then – this is the terribly difficult part!! - fold it over with craftsman ability in order to make a semicircle which has to be sealed with 5/6 regular pleats.
Then the cooking of these pieces of art can be done either by steaming in a traditional bamboo basket, to become the so called traditional shanghainese dish xiao long bao, or by boiling them in copious water; once boiled they can be slightly roasted in a pan with oil and usually served with Chinese vinegar or soy sauce.
I have my freezer packed with home made frozen jiaozi perfectly made from my “aunty”. For those that cannot enjoy home cooking, Shanghai doesn´t let you down: there are many famous eateries which offer jiaozi or xiao long bao grandmas´ style. Have a try at Nanxian Mantoudian in the middle of the old town or at the upscale Michelin starred chain Din Tai Fung with many locations around town. Whatch in this video the rapid hands movements of cooks preparing dumplings in a restaurant kitchen. Isn´t it amazing?