Next week marks the Winter Solstice. The Chinese celebrate the Winter Solstice with a festival. Because the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day and longest night, the origins of this festival revolve around the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the universe. Traditionally, the Winter Solstice Festival is also a time for family reunions and customarily, dumplings are served. Chinese lore says the dumpling tradition began with Zhang Ji, a physician of the Han Dynasty. The story goes that on a cold winter day Zhang Ji saw the poor suffering from the weather. Feeling sympathetic, he ordered his apprentices to make dumpling soup and distribute them among the poor to keep them warm.
This story reminded me of a remarkable sameness in my father and Uncle Richard’s preferences for their parents’ cooking as well as my own failed attempts to start a sort of soup dumpling ritual with my family.
I had asked my father what was his favorite dish my grandmother cooked. His list was long, starting with squab and included soy sauce chicken, bitter melon and scallion pancakes. When I asked what was his favorite dish my grandfather created there was no hesitation. “Kung tong bao,” was his immediate response. He said my grandfather was well known for his kung tong bao, and that the dish was “magical.”
I was taken aback for a moment for a couple of reasons.
First, a few years before my family closed the curtain on the Imperial Dynasty restaurant, my brother Damon and I filmed several hours of interviews with Uncle Richard. In one of the interviews I had asked Uncle Richard the same questions regarding favorite dishes his parents prepared. Years later, it was as though my father repeated Uncle Richard’s answers verbatim; the long list of my grandmother’s delectable creations and my grandfather’s famous kung tong bao.
In his interview, Uncle Richard said, “Imagine a bao (a steamed bun) where the inside is filled with soup. You put it in a bowl and you spoon off the top and you have soup! The soup is made up of a mixture of chicken, pork —sometimes crab — with spices and water chestnuts. The secret of preparing it is to have the filling cold. Really chill it. Make a broth made from chicken and pork bones and let it cool and set. It becomes gelatinous. Sometimes you add gelatin to the broth too. Then you add the jelly to the mixture of your ingredients. Roll out your bao dough. Place a small mound of the jelly mixture in the center then pleat the dough around the mixture. When you steam the bao, the jelly melts into a hot soup. It’s delicious.”
The other reason I was surprised at my father’s response was because even though I haven’t had the pleasure of dining on kung tong bao (yet), several years ago I was determined to serve them over the holidays. It was a disaster; although the bao was edible, the dough was weird and the kitchen was a mess. Earlier this year, I was making some bone broth and I thought that perhaps it was time to attempt kung tong bao once again. My father’s birthday was coming up and I wanted surprise him. My surprise turned out to be a bigger disaster than my first attempt. After steaming the bao, I lifted the lid of my wok and found the bao had exploded, leaving me with a wok full of broth topped with some strangely shaped pieces of squishy dough.
Kung tong bao is not a quick or easy recipe. Both times I tried the recipe, it took me a day and a half to make it. So unless the kung tong bao fairy godmother comes to visit me soon, I’m not going to attempt them this season. Nor am I going to share the recipe with you this week because I want you to enjoy the season with time for family and friends. Instead here’s a quick, easy and really tasty recipe for Coconut Curry Noodle Soup. Thewoksoflife.com has streamlined this delicious concoction so you can have a meal on the table with plenty of time to enjoy your family and friends during the busy holiday season.