“Please write, ‘Have a gyoza party at home,’” Hisashi “Teddy” Uehara urged during a lesson on proper gyoza making. Put out some minced shrimp and ground chicken along with the traditional ground pork, he said, set up a hot plate on the dining table and have the family gather around to fold and cook their own.
“The kids love making it, and everyone can eat fresh, hot gyoza,” said the head of the Agu a Ramen Bistro empire, with five restaurants in Hawaii, three in Houston and more to come. Uehara said he bonded with his children over bowls of gyoza “goo,” his word for the meat-veggie filling, and a stack of circular wrappers, as they folded the dumplings.
Agu’s gyoza is based on a family recipe that Uehara’s grandmother and mother made. It features common gyoza ingredients plus a few other items that up the ante on taste. Add to the mix Uehara’s tips and techniques, and you’ve got exceptionally delicious morsels. At the Agu on Isenberg Street, 80 to 100 six-piece orders are served daily on weekends. “Imagine all five restaurants!” Uehara enthused.
The recipe calls for ground pork, cabbage, ginger and green onions — not unusual. But added to the list are mentsuyu (bottled noodle sauce), oyster sauce, chives and chicken broth, plus white miso that gives umami, he said.
One item is purposefully left out.
“Shoyu is too bitter,” he said. “Instead, in the restaurant we use shoyu tare (the flavoring for shoyu ramen broth). At home you can use mentsuyu. That has dashi and sweetness.”
Considering that the recipe calls for 2-1/2 pounds of cabbage to just 1/2 pound of pork, processing the cabbage properly is vital. Uehara calls for mincing the leaves in a food processor and then letting the mixture sit overnight to allow water to release. The next day, he places it in cheesecloth and aggressively squeezes out the water until it becomes so dry it looks fluffy.
It’s important to use the dry cabbage right away. If not, “a day later more water will come out,” he said.
From there everything is placed in a large bowl and mixed.
Wrapping isn’t difficult, but it takes practice. Uehara’s fingers were at warp speed as he discussed how to successfully wrap gyoza with its trademark pleats.
For beginners, pleating the side of the wrapper facing you is best. Pleat, then squeeze the two sides together until you’ve done several pleats.
Take care but don’t get hung up on perfection. Uehara made sure we moved the process along as I struggled to keep up, my one gyoza to his four. I had some trouble sealing my pieces.
“Never use water to seal the wrapper,” he stressed. “If you use water, the gyoza becomes soggy. Moisten the edge with goo.”
The cooking process involves a quick steaming and then frying.
His cooking tips: Start with an extremely hot pan so that when you add water, it begins boiling right away. After several minutes of steaming, remove the water, drizzle some oil over the gyoza and fry. “Don’t cover the pan or else they will wilt. You want to dry the outside, make it crispy, and have the inside juicy.
“It’s pau when the gyoza starts talking to you,” Uehara said. “The sizzling gets louder. It’s saying, ‘I’m done! Let me out!’”
Chef Hisashi Uehara
- 2-1/2 pounds cabbage
- 2 teaspoons chives, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup green onion, sliced
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons white miso
- 1 tablespoon mentsuyu
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 3 tablespoons grated garlic
- 3 tablespoons grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chicken broth or diluted chicken bouillon
- 5 to 6 dozen round dumpling wrappers
Finely mince cabbage; set aside overnight to allow water to release. The next day, using cheesecloth, squeeze out the water until cabbage feels dry.
In large bowl, combine all ingredients except wrappers. Mix thoroughly by hand.
Make dumplings: Hold wrapper in palm of one hand, floured side down, and place 1 tablespoon (or 1 scoop with melon ball scooper) of filling at center of wrapper. Seal by folding wrapper in half around filling, making 1 small pleat on one end of wrapper, then pinching. If needed, smear a tiny bit of filling along edge to help hold seal. Continue to pleat and pinch, creating 3 more pleats. Squeeze out air before sealing completely.
Place finished gyoza on tray or platter; flatten bottom, with sealed edges up.
Cook: Heat pan until extremely hot. Add enough water to cover bottom of pan and then place gyoza, flattened side down. Don’t crowd pan. Pan should be hot enough that water begins boiling quickly. Cover and steam 3 to 4 minutes.
Drain water and drizzle top of dumplings with oil. Fry uncovered a few minutes until bottom is nicely browned. Remove from pan.
Serve with dipping sauce or dip in rice vinegar, shoyu and chili oil. Makes 5 to 6 dozen gyoza.
Approximate nutrtitional information per gyoza (not including dipping sauce): 50 calories, 3 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 5 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, no sugar, 2 g protein
Agu finds home in Houston
Of all the places in the world where Hisashi Uehara would feel understood, who would have imagined it would be Houston?
Yet the owner of the award-winning Agu a Ramen Bistro, who cooks his renowned ramen broths for a full day, said barbecue-loving Texans understand “low and slow.”
“They appreciate that good food takes time,” he said.
Uehara has opened five restaurants in Hawaii since 2013 and three in Houston in the past year. He’s slated to open six more there by May, and has plans for two in Dallas.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Why Texas?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ ” he quipped.
Uehara’s market research showed him that Houston is an up-and-coming foodie city with an influx of Japanese restaurants. A big plus is that in Texas they have “zero knowledge” of ramen, he said.
“Every table in my restaurants has a cheat sheet on Ramen 101.”
It’s a perfect place to set himself up to be the expert.
“The challenge is they don’t know ramen — they think it’s instant. Some restaurants are serving instant, so the benchmark is low. They complain, ‘Why are the prices so high?’ ”
To educate his guests, Uehara brings customers into the kitchen — “I show them the soup. I show them the gyoza, the char siu, the menma (bamboo shoot condiment). All from scratch,” he said. “I’m sure they will understand later.”
Uehara also serves Hawaii favorites such as poke, Huli-Huli-style chicken, Spam musubi, chicken katsu and mochiko chicken, which are enthusiastically received. “They get crazy,” he said.
Even so, is nine Agu in one city overkill?
“In Hawaii, going from (point) A to (point) B takes five or 10 minutes. But Houston is like a country — it’s so big,” he said, explaining that he was looking for a place large enough to support his expansion. “I don’t want to go somewhere to open just one or two restaurants.”
Is there a cooking technique you’d like explained? Email food editor Joleen Oshiro, firstname.lastname@example.org. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.