This began as an essay about the search for the perfect dumpling. The weeks before Lunar New Year – which this year is on February 14 – I always get a hankering. But now that I live in in California, I don’t have the luxury of hopping on NJ Transit for a short ride to my mother’s delectable eats.
You’d think finding a good dumpling would be easy in San Francisco, the supposed Chinese American mecca, what the ’49ers called jiu jing shan, the Old Gold Mountain (with New York presumably as the new gold mountain, though no one calls it that). The other day I went to a highly rated place. Highly rated in Chinatown usually means a hole in the wall, which is fine. I’ll take good food over fancy décor. But this was a hole in the wall teeming with people. Pushing, shoving old Chinese people, who elbowed me out of the way as though the apocalypse were upon us and behind the counter were the last turnip cakes on earth.
I barked my order. “Three shrimp! Three pork!” The total came to three bucks.
But when I got home, I found that I had gotten the wrong kind of pork dumplings. I had wanted those wrapped in tender white dough, not too thin or thick, the filling finely minced and balanced parts pork and vegetable. The kind I got was huge chunks of fatty pig meat slapped into egg noodle squares. No mom’s hands lovingly wrapped these.
The saving grace were the crystal shrimp dumplings, known by the Cantonese as har gau – the skin perfect and the shrimp hearty and generous. But har gou does not equal Chinese New Year.
As I forced the pseudo-dumplings down, I thought, I can’t do this again. I already knew I wouldn’t find the perfect dumpling here. I’d have to make do some other way.
* * *
Dumplings are a traditional Lunar New Year dish, along with nian gou, a sticky rice cake, whole fish, and long noodles for a long life. Shaped like ancient gold or silver ingots, dumplings symbolize wealth and are a must have for a guo nian dinner.
Dumplings come in a multitude of flavors. Popular are pork and scallions or green onion, but there are also pork and leek, pork and cilantro, pork and chives, even pork and celery. Basically pork plus some kind of vegetable, or pork plus shrimp plus vegetable. In China on an ill-fated trip to the coast, I once tried fish dumplings, which were far gushier than expected and which, along with mussels and shrimp, made me throw up for days.
Then there are the dumpling cousins. The aforementioned har gau, a dim sum staple, and shao mai, sort of a short cylinder shape with an open top, with or without rice. Potstickers are dumplings that have skipped boiling and gone straight to pan frying. Wontons are so easy to make even a dolt like me can do it. Xiao long bao, or little juicy buns, should be eaten carefully and with a spoon lest an overenthusiastic bite sends an ejaculate of bao zhi juice onto your unsuspecting dining partner (which happened to me once).
Don’t even get me started on the buns, from roast pork, to steamed, to fluffy white with delectably sweet barbecue pork pieces. There are countless ways you can wrap some dough around some kind of filling, and call it a dish.
* * *
My mother first learned to make dumplings as a girl in Taiwan. She learned from her mother, who learned from hers back in Shandong, the dumpling capital of China. My mother, aunts, and grandmother would make them together, standing around wrapping jiao zhi after jiao zhi, gossiping, laughing, and, in the case of one aunt, getting mad over some trivial thing and leaving the group in a flounce of flour dust, only to return minutes later to help with the double boiling and sliding the slippery suckers on platters to be brought, still steaming, to the table.
I never learned how to make dumplings, or how to cook at all from my mother. “How come you never taught me?” I asked her after I moved out.
“I felt guilty,” she said. As children, she and her sisters were made to cook and clean while their two brothers did nothing but study (though later my uncles would happily cook and clean for their wives, to the bizarre consternation of my grandmother).
Really, I think my mother didn’t have the patience. “You don’t know how,” she’d say whenever I asked to help. I didn’t know how because she had never taught me, and I couldn’t help because I didn’t know how. It was a vicious cycle.
(My mother’s reluctance to teach us culinary skills didn’t stop my brother from teaching himself though. In college, he was already making grilled fish and homemade chicken soup. Recently he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our entire extended family – brined turkey and homemade garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Our grandmother, who barely eats anything now, happily scarfed down my brother’s potatoes and stuffing. But he still doesn’t know how to make dumplings.)
My grandmother was far more patient with me in the kitchen. When I was a kid, she’d have me stand on a chair with my sleeves rolled up, stirring over and over a giant bowl of dumpling filling. She didn’t even get mad when I dropped a wad of pork on the floor. She just laughed and wiped it up.
After I left home, I had to make do with restaurant dumplings, which were hit or miss. The ones at Columbia Cottage were decent – nothing like my mom’s, more thick-skinned than I liked, but still pretty damned good when you’re a starving student. Sometimes I brought my mother’s dumplings back with me into the city, but no matter how much she bundled them up, the scallions always stunk up the train and fridge.
* * *
The only time I tried to wrap dumplings was in China. My cousin Huang Lei was the queen. She’d dollop the perfect amount of filling, squeeze her fingers in a magical and mysterious way, and voila! a perfect edible ingot. I tried to imitate her but could never get it right. Mine always came out misshapen and would fall apart upon boiling.
My wrapping inability was seen as just the tip of the iceberg of my kitchen ineptitude. Huang Lei got it in her head that I didn’t even know how to boil water (all I wanted to know was how long I should boil to ensure all nasties were eradicated), wash the dishes, or take out the garbage. “She doesn’t know how,” I heard a lot when she had friends over and everyone but me helped in the kitchen, though what she was referring to, I often had no idea.
By the time Lunar New Year rolled around, I had left Beijing and was in Xi’An with my friends. We had stupidly decided to travel on the worst night in China: New Year’s Eve. Picture Penn Station on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, South Street Seaport on the Fourth of July, and Times Square on, well, New Year’s Eve, and you have the Beijing airport the day before Spring Festival.
But once we reached Xi’An, things were quiet. People had gotten where they needed to go. Most shops and businesses were closed. But we found an open restaurant near our hotel (not the recommendation of the concierge, who took one look at my white friends and suggested a terrible and overpriced place that served Western-style food).
It was empty. The waitstaff sat around while two men chatted at the grand piano. One was older, the other young and handsome. Both smoked. As we walked in, the older man greeted us heartily.
“Huan yi!” he cried. “Welcome! Where are you from?”
The inevitable question. “America,” I said.
He looked perplexed but refrained from asking anymore.
He turned out to be the owner. Delighted to have any customers on New Year’s Eve, he gave us excellent recommendations: steamed snow fish, broccoli, and a platter of dumplings thrown in for free. Those three dishes plus the fried rice my friends, accustomed to Western style Chinese food, considered a staple, cost 88 RMB, or $11.
Only in China did the dumplings rival my mother’s. In the town where I lived, Dumpling City was the place to go, but while there were a head-spinningly large amount of choices, the quality was just so-so. It was usually in small unsuspecting places, like where we were in Xi’an, that you got the best kind.
While we ate, the owner played song after song on the grand piano. He may have sung too. The handsome young man sat down to chat with us.
He was a celebrity in Hainan, or so he said. Hainan is an island in the South China Sea, often described as China’s Hawaii. A celebrity in what, we weren’t sure. Music, but as a singer, producer, or DJ, we didn’t know. Whatever he was, he spoke English well. One of my friends remarked on it.
“Yes, some of us speak English,” he said sarcastically. “Imagine that.”
My friend, flustered, apologized. But when she asked him another question later, he didn’t understand and looked to me for translation.
He gave me his number. “If you’re ever in Hainan,” he said, “give me a call. I’ll show you around.”
My friends gave me looks. Yes, he was handsome, but I wasn’t interested. I was engaged at the time, plus I’d never take up with a guy from China. The cultural divide was too great. He’d probably expect me to make him dumplings.
* * *
That was eleven years ago, the end of a tiger year and the beginning of the rabbit. This February will be the tiger year again, beginning another twelve-year cycle. My father and boyfriend Alex are both tigers. My dad’s an earth tiger, a realist who has a sincere sense of responsibility and isn’t easily distracted, but who should remember not to take life too seriously, which pretty much describes my father to a tee.
Alex is a wood tiger – fierce but adaptable to working with others, stable, warm, and giving, but with a somewhat volatile temper and short attention span. A pretty accurate description as well.
If you believe in that sort of thing, which neither do. My father isn’t superstitious and Alex isn’t Chinese, or superstitious for that matter.
But Alex does want to help me find decent dumplings. While he cooks, he’s at a loss regarding this traditional dish.
“I don’t know how to make dumplings!” he cried helplessly.
I’d be surprised if he did, though I liked the idea coming home to find him, Texan-born and Scotch-Dutch, covered in flour and rolling dough at the counter.
We won’t go to Chinatown though. If I’m going to be shoved around by old Chinese people and eat questionable lumps of meat, I might as well be in China. I’m not sure where we’ll go. But even if we end up with some Korean mandoo or Japanese shumai, that’s okay. We’ll ring in the new year with junk wrapped in dough if it kills us.