Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series that will guide thoughtful, interactive cooking experiences with young children. The recipe comes from the pages of Kenji’s children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night, illustrated by his friend and collaborator Gianna Ruggiero. It’s a book about a young girl named Pipo who learns about open-mindedness, multiculturalism, community, and family, as she embarks on a quest to prove that pizza is the best food in the world. These are the dumplings her friends Ronnie and Donnie share with the neighborhood from their dumpling truck.
If pizza didn’t exist, dumplings would be my favorite food. Dumplings are a perfect food for you to share with your children, your friends, and your other loved ones. The best thing about them is that the sharing doesn’t have to start at the dinner table—a dumpling-stuffing party is a great way to get everyone involved in the kitchen.
Several times a year when I was growing up, my mother would park me and my sisters at the low table in our living room, set a stack of store-bought dumpling wrappers, a bowl of filling, and a few small bowls of water in the center, then put us to work stuffing and folding dumplings, which she would then space out on a tray and freeze. We happily did the work, knowing that we’d be enjoying them once a week or so for the next few months.
Besides, it was fun. As any parent knows, it’s inherently enjoyable for kids to stuff things into other things—especially squishy things that can get a little messy. There’s also a satisfying learning curve with dumplings, and, thankfully, even a misshapen or overstuffed dumpling is still going to taste delicious once it’s done cooking.
There are also plenty of learning opportunities involved—one of the joys of getting your toddler to love food and cooking.
Salting cabbage, letting it rest, then squeezing out the moisture through a kitchen towel is an early lesson in the concept of osmosis, and one that even a toddler can grasp when it’s illustrated so vividly. Salt on the outside of vegetable cells draws water out of those cells, which in turn causes the structure of the cabbage to collapse. (I’d start by showing them the minced cabbage, then asking them how much water they think is inside. They will be shocked by how much water the salt draws out!)
Folding dumplings is great for fine motor skills and learning patience and practice. Start them off* with simple half-moons, showing them how to squish excess air out of the dumpling as they fold, and as they get the hang of it, you can start adding pleats and attempting the classic purse shape. (See our Japanese gyoza post for a more detailed look at various folding techniques).
*And yourself, if you’ve never folded dumplings before!
There’s also a wealth of opportunities to explore flavor and aroma. The basic recipe will taste just fine on its own, but adding optional aromatics like garlic, ginger, scallions, herbs, sesame oil, or soy sauce lets you customize the mix. Arrange whatever aromatics you choose into small bowls, then let the kids smell and taste them before deciding whether to add it to the mixture, and how much to use. Similarly, mixing up the easy dipping sauce can be a lesson in basic flavors, such as sweet sugar, salty and umami soy sauce, and sour vinegar.
My daughter, Alicia, has had her own small marble mortar and pestle that she’s used since before her second birthday to smash garlic and ginger with a pinch of kosher salt when we need some minced for a recipe. Anything in the one-and-a-half-cup capacity range is good for little hands, and you’ll be surprised by how much a toddler can actually help out when armed with one! Check out our guide to kids’ cooking tools we love for more ways to get young kids set up in the kitchen.
Dumpling-making with kids is inherently messy, and some ingredients like soy sauce and dark vinegars can stain, so plan on a good clean-up session after you’re done (and don’t work over a carpet or your fancy table linens). Treating it like an art project by placing newspaper under your plates and cutting boards isn’t a bad idea. Make sure your kids wash their hands well and teach them about properly handling raw meat and seafood.