I grew up in South Carolina in the 1970s and '80s, amid a sea of towheaded children. There wasn't a whole lot of Chinese-ness around us — but the one big exception was our kitchen. So my Chinese identity, and much of my Mandarin vocabulary, is connected to food.
I'm the first generation of my family born in the United States, and our meals reflected that. We had our fair share of Ragu spaghetti sauce, tacos from a kit and tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips.
But nearly every Sunday night, we had dumplings, hot-and-sour soup and scallion pancakes. My dad's job was to roll out the dough for the dumpling wrappers; my brother, sister, mom and I worked as a factory line to fill and seal the lovely little pouches of meat and vegetables.
At other meals, we ate whole fish, heads, eyeballs and all; we had stinky dried mushrooms rehydrating on the kitchen counter, along with wood-ear fungi that looked like something that had been wiped off the counter.
All those years, I watched my mother cook, but I never really learned how to myself.
When I found out my parents would be with my husband and me at the beginning of the lunar new year, I hightailed it to a Chinese market. I bought regular tofu, deep-fried tofu, oily tofu, shiitake mushrooms, golden needle mushrooms, and two different kinds of fish balls. The cashier laughed at the parade of comestibles: It was enough food to feed a small village. She asked me how big my family was.
But I didn't buy the must-have traditional New Year food: sticky rice cakes. They're called niangao in Chinese, which sounds like the words for "year" and "high," and are eaten to bring better luck in each new year.
As far as I'm concerned, "making" sticky rice cake consists of cutting and heating up thick slices from the big chunk of the stuff that my grandmother sends me. I don't really even know what goes into them.
This won't be the most complicated meal my parents will have ever had at the new year. In fact, by traditional Chinese standards, it will likely rank among the most simple and humble.
But I hope more than anything that they enjoy it and leave the table feeling full and happy, for its main ingredients will not be the fancy meats or mushrooms I bought, but the love I feel for them and the desire I have to try and repay them the riches — edible and not — they have given me.
A traditional dish for Chinese New Year and a favorite when eating out, dumplings can also be made at home. Recipe and folding instructions below.
T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang
Long ago, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there was a restaurant named Chun Cha Fu. My family went there whenever we could, and I loved it as if it too were my family: the booths with their torn red leather, the smiling waiters in their ill-fitting tan jackets, the starched napkins that looked and smelled like fortune cookies.
Every time we went, my sister and I asked for fried dumplings, guotie. The wait always felt too long, but the thrill of each first bite remains with me 30 years later. When I close my eyes, I can taste the shattering-crisp, gilded dumpling wrapper, the scalding, soy-scented pork, the heat spreading through my body as I tried to breathe politely around a steaming mouthful. There was much to love about Chun Cha Fu, but it was the dumplings that drew us back again and again.
About the Author
T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer specializing in food and food policy. She writes a monthly cookbook column for the Boston Globe food section, and her articles on cooking, gardening, and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications.
Many years later, I learned that dumplings — which are known generically as jiaozi — are a traditional treat for Chinese New Year. Shaped like the gold ingots once used in China as currency, they are said to hold the promise of prosperity. My first reaction, though, was equal parts disbelief and trepidation: "Imagine! Only eating dumplings once a year."
Action swiftly followed, as it does in cases like these, and I suddenly needed to learn to make them — daily, if need be. Most of the ingredients — napa cabbage, pork, dumpling wrappers — were easily found at the supermarket. As to the garlic chives, the Chinese leeks that give the dumplings their distinctive flavor, my Aunty Sen dug some up from her garden for me to plant in mine. "They spread like weeds!" she cautioned, ensuring that I would never again find myself in want for garlic chives, or dumplings, again.
In time, my fingers mastered the simple folds and pleats, and as I sit with friends and family enclosing the filling in its round wrappers, my dumplings look to me like hundreds of tiny stuffed wallets, each filled with the secret promise of all good things.
The secret spreads quickly, though. Once the dumplings hit the hot oil, the perfumed steam steals across the house, and people start to drift downstairs without really knowing why. After the dumplings have turned a burnished gold and begun to stick to the side of the pan — guotie means "pot sticker" — we tip a little water into the pan and put the lid on to capture the steam.
The dumplings pop and bubble ostentatiously, impossible to ignore. When they are done, their thin wrappers are translucent, a tantalizing window into what lies ahead.
Although it is anything but traditional, these days I like to make dumplings in solitude, too. When the house is quiet, I take hoarded batches of uncooked dumplings out of the freezer to thaw. Soon they are singing in their cast-iron pan, whose face is as round and dark as the invisible new moon that marks the lunar new year.
Wreaths of steam rise like clouds of memory. My next child, who will be born when the garlic chives blossom, stirs within me as if recalling the happy meals of a past life. To once eat perfectly cooked jiaozi is to crave them forever, and to long to return home where, no matter what else may happen, someone loves you enough to make dumplings for you again.
Chun Cha Fu, with its dragons and colored lights, is long gone, buried in the 1970s with many of its dimly lit, cocktail-drenched peers. Families change from year to year, with new faces replacing the old. But when my children eat dumplings, I hope they will feel rich as we once did — rich with memory and hope, the mingled taste of promises kept for one more year.
This recipe for dumplings is adapted from The Food of China by Deh-Ta Hsiung and Nina Simonds. It's a great, basic recipe for dumplings, to which other ingredients can easily be added: minced shiitake or other mushrooms, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots. Non-pork versions can be made using scrambled egg or shrimp. At left, you can see exactly how to wrap the dumplings, and I have included some ideas for dipping sauces below. — T. Susan Chang
Hold a wrapper in your palm, place about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center.
Dip your finger in the water and trace a wet arc along the edge of the wrapper.
Fold the wrapper in half over the filling, fitting the dry edge to the wet, and seal with your fingertips.
Dip your finger in the water again and dampen the edge of the half-circle. Make a series of 6 or 7 small pleats in the edge, pinching them together with your fingertips.
Heat a tablespoon of oil until shimmering and fry dumplings until golden-brown on both sides. Add a 1/3 cup of water, cover and steam for 2 minutes until the wrappers are just translucent.
1 of 5
Yield: 50 dumplings
6 cups Chinese (napa) cabbage, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground pork
2 cups Chinese garlic chives, finely chopped (if you can't find them at an Asian market, scallions will do in a pinch)
2 and 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine or sherry
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon canola or corn oil
50 round dumpling wrappers
To make the filling:
Combine the cabbage and salt in a bowl and toss lightly; let rest for 30 minutes. Squeeze the water out of the cabbage and place it in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, stir until well mixed, and drain off any excess liquid.
To wrap the dumplings:
Keep the round wrappers covered in plastic while you work, so they don't dry out. Have a small bowl of water handy.
Holding one wrapper in your palm, place about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center. Dip your finger in the water and trace a wet arc along the edge of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half over the filling, fitting the dry edge to the wet, and seal with your fingertips. You now have a dumpling in the shape of a half-circle.
Dip your finger in the water again and dampen the edge of the half-circle. Make a series of 6 or 7 small pleats in the edge, pinching them together with your fingertips. If freezing dumplings, do it now, before cooking.
To fry the dumplings:
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add one layer of dumplings, making sure the edges don't touch. When the first side is golden-brown, flip and brown the other side. Add 1/3 cup of water, cover and steam for 2 minutes. When the wrappers are just translucent, uncover, raise the heat. Remember to boil off all the remaining water: Soggy dumplings are nobody's friend. And a good spatula is a big help if the potstickers are living up to their name. It's also possible to boil or steam dumplings.
Serve with red rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil, minced garlic and rice vinegar, chili sauce or black vinegar dipping sauce (recipe below).
Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
1 tablespoon scallions, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon black vinegar (Chinkiang vinegar)
a few drops of white vinegar (rice vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon white sugar
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup dark soy sauce (e.g. Kikkoman)
In a small bowl combine the ginger and scallions. Add the sugar, vinegars and sesame oil. Crush the mixture lightly with a fork or chopsticks to help release the flavors. Let it rest for at least 5-10 minutes.
Add the soy sauce gradually to taste. Less soy sauce makes for a thick, pungent sauce; more makes for a milder dressing.