Weeknight Cooking

Shu Mai: The Dumpling World's Bill & Ted

May 24, 2012

Nicholas Day on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

dumpling wrappers

Our household runs on shu mai.

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In whatever weather, we make shu mai; we freeze shu mai; we consume shu mai in a grateful frenzy when we discover there is nothing else in the house.

To ask why this is so is to ask the immortal question posed by Yum Yum Dim Sum, “Why, oh why, my little shu mai, why do I love you so?”

yum yum dim sum

Yum Yum Dim Sum does not get around to answering its own question. (Board books: high on taste, low on content.) But I will speak for it: because shu mai are small but soul-filling, and surprisingly simple, and will buy you precious minutes of peace. And because they are addictive.

You want to know how addictive? For a couple of months, out of sheer toddler stubbornness, Isaiah insisted on eating his shu mai before we could defrost them, when they were like dim sum ice pops. To prevent frostbite, he put socks on his hands.

We have photos. It looks bad.

I had always thought that there are two types of shu mai dumplings in the world, the kind born of penury and the kind born of plenty: the plenty kind have lots of meat and the penury kind have lots of rice.

sticky rice dumplings

It turns out, like a lot of other things I had always thought, that this isn’t entirely true. The shu mai with lots of pork and shrimp are from Guangdong—they are the ubiquitous shu mai, the dim sum shu mai. The ones with lots of sticky rice are from Shanghai. I still think that if I went all Fernand Braudel on the socioeconomic undercurrents of dumpling fillings, I could prove at least part of my penury-plenty argument. But then I would be right and have zero readers. There are trade-offs in this life.

These are the sticky rice sort, from Jeremy Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Seductions of Rice, and once you make them, you’ll develop primal feelings for them. Even delicious pork-and-shrimp-larded dim sum shu mai will disappoint.

seductions of rice

But by now, you are asking why a column about cooking for children has you making dumplings. Making dumplings is for: 1) people who grew up making dumplings, do it in their sleep and wake up each morning to fresh xiao long bao; and 2) people without young children.

Point taken. But you are not going to make the wrappers. (Seriously. Just stop.) And there is nothing elegant about shu mai. They are the slack-ass, Bill-and-Ted dumplings of the dumpling world. They require no twisting or tying or double dutch moves. If yours are all creased and folded, they will be perfect, because they are all creased and folded. Assembling a shu mai is like curling your hand over your car keys. If you have driven a car, you have already practiced making shu mai.

steamer basket

Even young children can do it, but unless yours have better fine motor skills and more impulse control, your dumplings will suck more and there will be fewer.

Also, add spinach, because that’s what Jessica Seinfeld would do.

No! As Rilke said, if you find yourself cooking like Jessica Seinfeld, you must change your life. I add the spinach because I like its minerality up against the oily rice.

Also, you’ve got to trick the child into eating the rice somehow.

shu mai


Shu mai, sticky rice-style

Lightly adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Seductions of Rice

Makes 35-40 dumplings

The dumplings:

1 1/2 cup sticky rice (sweet rice), short-grain (the Chinese kind, not the Thai kind)
1/2 pound ground pork
6 dried black mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then drained and chopped
1 tablespoon dried shrimp, minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup scallions, minced
1/2 pound spinach, washed well and chopped well
35-40 wonton wrappers, square (roughly two inches by two inches)

The dipping sauce:

3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


jellychai March 23, 2014
It's shaomai instead of shumai, great recipe though. Thank you for sharing.
garlic&lemon June 10, 2012
I used to alternate steamed and chopped lacianato kale with chopped spinach in just about everything when my child was young. Eventually, he got to like kale and spinach on their own. Shu Mai makes perfect sense - kids like things in little packages.
arielleclementine May 24, 2012
another fantastic article! thanks for the recipe.
MrsMehitabel May 24, 2012
I recently read your sardines post, and now this. A few years ago, these articles would have sounded like unrealistic bragging (especially the bit about getting the kid to eat rice by adding spinach), but I have a toddler and all this really rings true. I was never set on my child becoming the sort that eats precious little truffle doodahs, but now that he's here and eating, it's become apparent that children just don't have regular food inhibitions. He found my nice 18-year balsamic vinegar and eats it on everything (and mostly out of a spoon). He cannot stand strawberries, but asks for matzoh (which, bland cracker- what's not to like). The other day he woke up, popped his head out of the crib, and said, "A yittle coffee drink!!"
Nicholas D. May 25, 2012
A yittle coffee drink is glorious. I can totally see that.
Nozlee S. May 24, 2012
Tonight I'll find out if these shu mai are as perfect for childless youngs as they are for parents and kids -- seriously, these sound amazing.