The first time I ate at Koko Head Cafe in Kaimukī, I ordered the dumpling of the day.
It just so happened to be the best dish I had eaten all year.
I thought about that pork-stuffed potsticker topped with a housemade XO sauce crafted by “Top Chef” alum Lee Anne Wong (@leeannewong) for weeks.
Turns out, it’s the recipe on Page 4 of her new cookbook, aptly named “Dumplings All Day Wong,” on shelves now.
I flipped through the 256-page cook — gorgeously photographed, by the way — and practically licked the images of sesame jin dui, California roll gyoza, dan dan pork wontons, and white chocolate wasabi pretzel dumplings.
But my heart stopped on Page 122: BBQ Chicken Dumplings (top).
Oh, the perfect combination of things I love, namely chopped barbecue chicken and deep-fried dough. It’s really the perfect dish for leftover chicken — easy to prep, simple to make. I was sold. (Recipe below)
So I chatted with the busy chef/owner — and now cookbook author! — about this new endeavor and how the OG_KarateGuy got into her book:
CT: Where did the idea for the book come from? What were hopes/goals for the project?
LAW: Interestingly enough the photographer in the book, Ken Goodman, whom I have known peripherally through food and wine circles for a few years, contacted me and inquired if I’d be into writing a book. Page Street Publishing was looking for some new culinary authors. I had just filmed a one hour special — “Food Crawl with Lee Anne Wong” for The Cooking Channel/Food Network — which was focused on my interactive tour through NYC in search of awesome dumplings and noodles. It is now and has always been my theory that you’d be hard pressed to find a single soul on this planet who wouldn’t like a hot fresh dumpling. I agreed to write it because while I am no dim sum master, I enjoy feeding people and I love making (and eating) dumplings. With only the hopes that it was a topic that would be universally loved, I set out to write a book for dumpling lovers of all skill sets, from the home cook to the professional.
CT: Why dumplings?
LAW: Almost every culinary culture in this world has their own version of a dumpling of sorts. I focused on the Asian variety because I’m obsessed with them. I also feel like when you’re in the kitchen making dumplings people tend to flock first in curiosity and then in anticipation. “Dumplings bring people together.” If I were a politician that’d be my slogan.
CT: I’m obsessed with your dumplings at Koko Head Cafe. Obsessed. Why do you have such a knack for it — and what do you love about making them?
LAW: Speaking of obsessions, haha, thanks, Cat. Dumplings on my menu at Koko Head Cafe is part of my nod to Asian culture. If it’s 7 a.m. and you put a plate of dumplings in front of me, and then a plate of eggs and bacon, etc, I’m gonna go for the dumplings first every time. Having spent the past 20 years in NYC, favorite early morning activities included dim sum, congee, and noodles in Chinatown, where especially on really cold winter days, it became a morning food religion, soulful comfort food kinda stuff, you know? I have folded many dumplings in my life and when we first opened I was the only one who knew how to do it. I knew I had to teach my cooks at some point. Now at least half of them are quite skilled at it, and I’m no longer folding dumplings on the fly at 7 a.m. hoping the first three tables that sit down immediately don’t want dumplings (and they usually do, only proving my point). I do enjoy the repetition of folding though. It’s my “me” time to think about whatever. And I’m pretty fast.
CT: How do you get inspiration for your recipes?
LAW: I’m inspired by what’s delicious. Classic and favorite flavor combinations make it easy to conceptualize what works, which is pretty much anything. You like meatloaf and mashed potatoes??? OK, let’s put that in a dumpling and drown the thing in mushroom gravy. Yum. Nom nom.
CT: Looks like you did a lot of the shooting and cooking here in Hawaii. True? Why Hawaii and not, oh, NYC?
LAW: Right in my backyard in Mānoa. It was timing, where I had just moved here in December and had to get the book photographed by Jan. 15. I was still in the middle of writing it while we shot the recipes (in a whirlwind of three days — thank you [chef] Will Chen for helping me), so while it was an undoubtedly painful process, I am relieved it is done and now I will always be able to look at my cookbook with that little kid pride: “I did that :)”
CT: Is there anything you can’t do in a dumpling?
LAW: Tell me your favorite food and I’ll tell you how to make it into a dumpling.
CT: The name of the book is perfection. How did that come about?
LAW: The publisher had asked me to start thinking about titles and so I fired off six, “Dumplings All Day Wong” being the first one. I think he glazed over the email or it just didn’t sit well with him the first time. So they tested the concept to a few audiences with some other titles they made up, that in the end I railed against because they said nothing about me or the tone of the book. At which point we had a phone call and I said, “What about ‘Dumplings All Day Wong’? C’mon, it’s funny. It’s very ‘me.’ And it immediately brands the book.” He reacted like he had heard it for the very first time, and everyone else on the conference call chuckled too, so when he said, “I like it, I think it could work.” It was huge victory for me.
CT: I’m stoked the OG_KarateGuy made the book! Is he your muse?
LAW: Yes my little buddy (@OG_KarateGuy on Twitter), who has traveled the culinary universe with me, made it into the book. I actually need to create an Instagram for all of his past adventures, and take him out of my coffee table, where he currently resides, and start creating some fresh ones. Stay tuned. Hai.
BBQ Chicken Dumplings
From “Dumplings All Day Wong” by Lee Anne Wong
12 oz (340 g) cooked chicken meat, dark meat preferably
¼ cup (15 g) minced scallion, white and green parts
1 tsp (5 g) minced garlic
1 tsp (5 g) minced ginger
2 tbsp (30 ml) maple syrup or dark brown sugar
1 tbsp (15 ml) oyster sauce
1 tbsp (15 ml) soy sauce
1 tbsp (15 ml) apple juice or cider
1 tbsp (10 g) cornstarch
1 tbsp (15 ml) Chinese red vinegar or rice vinegar
1 tsp (5 ml) sambal paste or Sriracha
½ tsp dry mustard powder
¼ tsp ground white pepper
1 recipe Bao Dough (page 30)
Oil for deep-frying
To make the filling, chop the cooked chicken meat into small ½-inch (1.3-cm) pieces and shred. In a separate bowl, mix the remaining ingredients until smooth. Fold the sauce into the cooked chicken meat until well combined. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Divide your dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a 1-inch (2.5-cm)-thick rope and cut into ½-inch (1.3-cm) pieces. Keep the dough covered with a damp towel. Roll each dough ball into a 3-inch (7.5-cm) round wrapper using a rolling pin, about ⅙-inch (0.4 cm) thick. Fill each wrapper with 1 tablespoon (12 g) of filling. Lightly wet the edges of the wrapper and form the dumpling using the round or puck-shaped fold. Keep the dumplings covered on a lightly floured tray or plate. Preheat the deep-frying oil to 350°F/176°C. Carefully fry the dumplings in small batches until the skin is golden brown and the dumplings are floating in the oil, about 3 to 4 minutes, gently tossing the dumplings in the oil so all sides cook evenly. Drain on paper towels. Allow the oil to come back to 350°F/176°C before frying the next batch. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce of your choice. Makes 32 dumplings.