You'll never go hungry if you can whip up egg fried rice...
Amy and Julie Zhang, aka The Dumpling Sisters, have been introducing thousands of followers to their style of laid-back, homemade Chinese food since they launched their hugely popular YouTube channel, two years ago.
Now the self-described Chiwi (Chinese-Kiwi) duo, who live in London, are bringing their classic recipes and Chinese-cooking tips to an even bigger audience with the debut of their first cookbook, The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook: Over 100 Favourite Recipes from a Chinese Family Kitchen (hardback, RRP £20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
We talk to Amy and Julie about why dumplings are like pancakes, how a food's texture is as important as its taste, and get top tips to whip up some Chinese food classics:
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
"Non-fussy and delicious! Being far from home, mum and dad had a great 'make do' approach to cooking. Arriving in New Zealand 27 years ago, there were very few places to find Chinese ingredients so they had to be creative and flexible in the kitchen.
"That’s what we try to remember whenever we cook and when we teach people how to make our recipes: it's easy to make something special out of what might seem like basic ingredients."
What are the staple dishes of Chinese home cooking?
"At the heart of every meal is a bowl of fluffy jasmine rice (for a Cantonese family and those in Southern China; it's noodles in the North). For four or five people there would usually be a mixture of three to four vegetable and meat dishes placed in the centre of the table and shared by everyone. The vegetable could be simply blanched and lightly dressed in oil and salt, or stir-fried with garlic and ginger. For a meat dish, we love poached chicken with an addictive ginger and spring onion sauce."
How has your background influenced your cooking style?
"Our parents’ home-style Cantonese cooking has absolutely influenced our cooking style, as well as working at the market where our family has run a food cart for over 20 years while we were growing up. Whenever we create recipes today we always try to keep our audience in mind because we want them to enjoy cooking and eating the delicious food as much as we do.
"Over time we’ve added our own twists – such as using a staple ingredient like soy sauce in unexpected ways (adding it to a caramel sauce, for example). We also love all sorts of international cuisine and count ourselves lucky to live in London, where you have access to pretty much every type of cuisine possible."
What are the cupboard essentials to cook Chinese food at home?
"The amazing thing about Chinese food is that just a few essentials can take you in loads of different directions. For example, salt, sugar, soy sauce, ginger, bicarbonate of soda and cornflour will allow you to create a traditional marinade that works for all types of meat, making it juicy and tender at the same time.
"A seasoned carbon steel wok (which you can pick up quite cheaply at Chinese supermarkets) will help you create deliciously smoky stir-fries in moments. And we can’t forget about the humble spring onion – this little ingredient pops up all the time."
What are three Chinese dishes everyone should master?
"You’ll never go hungry if you can whip up an egg fried rice, you’ll always impress with barbecue char siu pork, and you’ll get lots of satisfaction from making your own dumplings from scratch."
What are the essentials we need to know to make perfect dumplings?
"Practise, practise, practise! Dumplings are a bit like pancakes – the first one of the batch is usually a little fiddly and lopsided, and the next one is a chance to up your game. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole little army of perfectly formed dumplings. We also like to rope in friends and family because dumpling-making is a really fun social activity, too."
What do you eat on a typical day?
"For brekkie we love a really dense sesame seed bagel, one half spread with butter and Marmite and the other with peanut butter and honey. A hearty soup with bread makes a lovely lunch. Dinner might be a lightning quick stir-fry or a stew that’s been slow-cooked during the day. We are also tea addicts, and we probably eat too many chocolate biscuits!"
What are your favourite Chinese eating spots in London?
"For lovely little dim sum we visit Golden Dragon in Chinatown. Also in Chinatown is a nifty joint called Beijing Dumpling, which makes the most incredible, cheap-as-chips special fried rice. For a treat we head to the Duck and Rice – not only does it serve delicious and creative Chinese food but it’s also a strikingly beautiful setting."
What’s your desert island dish?
"Lacquered Honey Hoisin Ribs (from our book!). These bad boys are so succulent and flavoursome. Nibbling on ribs also seems quite apt for a desert island…"
Tell us a bit about "mouthfeels"?
"In Cantonese food the textures and sensations are just as important as the flavours. How crunchy is that spring roll? How silky is the egg custard that is encased in the melt-in-the-mouth crust? There is a special set of terms that are used to describe those sensations, quite literally words for describing how the food feels in the mouth.
It’s really common for Chinese people to drop these terms during meals – we always do, at the family table, and one of our favourites has to be song, which refers to something with a refreshingly crisp bite, such as cucumber."
All images via The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook: Over 100 Favourite Recipes From A Chinese Family Kitchen / Paul Winch-Furness