Thursday, May 9, 2013

Putting the tsal in salsa

Momo and buuz are two very, very iconic dishes of (respectively) Tibet and Mongolia. No discussion of China's many cuisines would be complete without including both a mention and a recipe.

That being said, the following recipe is a bit of a change-up on these traditions. This all started when I was reading the food memoirs of the wonderful writer Liu Zhenwei and came across his discussion of shumai in a chapter on Inner Mongolia. 

Mr. Liu noted that the restaurants “Gufengxuan and Maixiangcun in Guisui, Suiyuan [part of present-day Inner Mongolia] are without a doubt number one in the world... the shumai of Guisui in fact have fillings of beef and lamb, with the addition of mushrooms, large scallions, and minced ginger.”

Now, that might already sound pretty good, but there’s nothing particularly innovative there, no ingredients that make the imagination go wild. But read on: “The skins used to wrap the ‘shumai’… are rolled out extremely thin, and after they have been steamed, they appear translucent, reflecting the brown of the filling, with a circle of white folds on top.”

Tibetan salsa!
These shumai have skins therefore that are much more elegant than what we have become accustomed to seeing on momo, buuz, and the shumai of the rest of China. (If you would like to make the traditional momo and buuz that are much heftier and more filling, see the Variations at the end of this recipe.)

And so I went to work trying to re-create these delicate steamed packets of long ago. In the process of fooling around with my food (a practice I heartily endorse), I used hot stock instead of cool or warm water to make the wrappers. 

The results are ethereal.

One more thing: I became excited all over again when I started putting two and two together and came up with eight. The reason? Tibetans make a dipping sauce out of tomatoes, fresh chilies, green onions, garlic, salt, and cilantro. To a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, that was nothing less than a recipe for salsa. 

And the Tibetan name for this salsa? Tsal.

Go figure.

Steamed lamb or beef dumplings
Momo and Buuz
Tibet, Mongolia
Makes 36 dumplings and serves 3 to 4

1 pound ground lamb (or beef), preferably at least 20% fat
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
5 green onions, trimmed and finely minced
¼ cup finely chopped celery
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted stock
2 teaspoons sea salt
4 large mushrooms, finely chopped
2 teaspoons cornstarch
The delicate variation on a theme
1½ cups Korean or Chinese noodle (high gluten) flour, plus extra flour as needed
5 tablespoons boiling hot, unsalted chicken stock, strained

Tibetan salsa (tsal):
3 or 4 ripe red tomatoes
1 fresh red chili pepper (as hot as you like), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Small bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped

1. Start this recipe at least 4 hours before you want to serve it to give the filling time to chill. Mix together the filling ingredients and stir them rapidly in one direction until they are light and fluffy. Cover the container and refrigerate.

2. While the filling is getting cold, make the dough by placing the flour in a medium work bowl; use chopsticks to mix in the boiling chicken stock. As soon as it forms clumps, empty the dough out onto a smooth surface and knead it until it is smooth and bouncy, only adding flour if it is truly necessary, although the dough should not stick to your hands or the board. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

3. Next, make the salsa by chopping the tomatoes into ½-inch dice. Place these in a small work bowl. Add the chili pepper, garlic, green onions, salt, and oil. Toss the salsa, cover, and refrigerate until serving time, and then stir in the chopped cilantro; taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Roll the dough out into a rope 36 inches long and cut the dough into 36 even pieces. Toss these lightly with flour and then roll each piece out into a circle about 3 inches wide. Divide the filling into 36 pieces and add one piece to the center of the circle. Gather the edges up in a frill so that the dough is puckered and pressed together over the top of the filling in a curved seam. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until done.

5. Grease 2 steamer baskets and place them over boiling water for around 5 minutes to warm them up. Arrange as many shumai in the baskets as fit comfortably without touching, stack and cover the baskets, and steam them for around 15 minutes. (Do this in two batches, if necessary.) Serve immediately with dark vinegar for dipping.


Triangular momos
Momo. To make momo, double the amount of flour and add enough warm filtered water to form a soft dough. Knead and let it rest, and then cut the dough into 36 pieces. Roll each piece out into a circle about 3 inches wide, and then form a triangular packet by bringing the edges at 0°, 120°, and 240° together in the center and then sealing the seams (see the photo to the right). Steam as directed above and serve with the sauce.

Buuz. To make buuz, double the amount of flour and add enough warm filtered water to form a soft dough. Knead and let it rest, and then cut the dough into 36 pieces. Roll each piece out into a circle about 3 inches wide, and then make an oval packet by pinching the top seam together in a braid pattern. Steam as directed above and serve without a sauce.

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