Chinese dumpling has a particular name because of its shape. Do you think it looks like this object? Yes! We parallel it to the appearance of the ancient treasure and call it “Golden ingot 金元寶.” It is also one of the essential foods for Chinese New Year. The analogy is simple — you get what you eat. Once the dumpling is inside of you, you have confined your wealth.
Dumplings have worldwide fame as Chinese food now, but when I was a kid, although my family had it regularly, it was exotic for Taiwanese people. To understand why, I have to explain how my parents, and many couples like them, got married. Taiwanese people saw new immigrants from China as the “other race” at that time, neglecting the fact that their ancestors emigrated from China two hundred years ago. Thus, my parents were considered a “mixed-race” couple. My father, who was from China, married my mother who was born in Taiwan, in 1954. Many Taiwanese parents, my mother’s included, wouldn’t allow their daughters to marry a Chinese man for these reasons: one, to comprehend varieties of provincial dialects was extremely problematic; two, the grievance towards KMT’s February 28 massacre in 1947 still lingered in people’s minds. Against all the odds, many Chinese men, including my father, successfully married a local woman. Mostly, the awkward marriages were eventually accepted, and in many cases, the couples lived happily ever after. Four other families that shared the same courtyard with ours, two were “mixed-race”: one was Taiwanese, and the other was Chinese.
The Chinese new immigrants’ provincial accents were hard to comprehend, but the food they brought in was widely welcome. Taiwanese only ate rice, whereas dumplings were popular for Northern Chinese whose primary source of carbohydrate was flour. Thanks to my neighbors who were from north China, they taught my parents how to make northern dishes such as noodles, green onion pancake, buns, and everyone’s favorite: dumplings.
Dumpling making required preparation. I was familiar with the prelude. First, my mother mixed water in a big pot of flour and made it into a dough, on which she dusted extra flour, then thoroughly kneaded it on a big wooden board. The dough would become as round as a basketball before she covered it with a damp towel and put it away. Secondly, she prepared the filling. The main ingredient was ground pork. I had to mention the butcher vendor in front of our house. By the street, the butcher couple was selling fresh pork. They were my mother’s good friend. After they closed the stand, they came into my house for a chat and often stayed for lunch under my mother’s insistence. Every day they brought in some good pork with a discount price, or sometimes free. My mother mixed the ground pork with some soy sauce, sesame oil, and salt, then put it away. Then she had to prepare the vegetable. We always had cabbage. She first soaked two big heads in a big basket, then chopped them into small pieces. The chopping was annoying because it seemed to take forever, and the tiny pieces got all over the place. After the cabbage was all chopped up, she mixed it with some salt, waited for twenty minutes, then squeezed the juice out. She liked to add some ginger and green onion to enhance the flavor. When the pork and vegetable were blended well together, it was time to make the dumpling.
The dumpling-making was festive and party-like. It happened in our tiny kitchen facing the courtyard. My two neighbors, whom we called “mama (mother)” following their last names, gathered around the big board. Gu-mama rolled the dough into wrappers. Bai-mama wrapped the filling and completed a dumpling. Making wrappers required a sophisticated skill — with one hand operating the roller and the other turning the wrapper in the circle. Gu-mama finished one beautiful wrapper — thick in the middle and thin at the edge, evenly 3 inches in diameter — within 8 seconds. Bai-mama shaped a dumpling in 5 seconds. I always observed their action as though it was an incredible show. I tried to learn the skill from Gu-mama but gave up on its difficulty. How I do it was not qualified to the professional standard — I press the roller with two hands and flatten the dough into the same thickness. While the mamas were working, my mother prepared a big pot of water on the stove and hand washed clothes in the meantime. My next door neighbor Liu-mama would quit her chores and join the chit-chat at which she liked to brag about how much money she saved from food and household spending, while the other mamas recalled their Ma-Jiang games, regretting a wrong strategy and planning a better one.
When the water boiled, mom would drop thirty-something dumplings into the pot, then separated them carefully not to break them. When the water boiled again, she poured one bowl of cold water in it to cool down the temperature. After adding two more times of cold water, the dumpling would float up. Using a big strainer, she scooped the dumplings out and placed them on a big tray.
It was an exciting moment now. Mom would call us up and after many wows and a few minutes, the tray became empty. The neighbor mamas always looked at us unbelievably, remarking in their incredible tone, “Lao Bao (my dad’s nickname used in his circle.) was so capable of raising these hungry kids!” When the aroma spread through the courtyard, more neighbors came over to express their adoration. Eventually, mamas produced more than 200 dumplings that would last for two meals for us and enough for mom to share with neighbors.
When my siblings were old enough to help, making dumplings became a family factory on the weekend. I would chop the vegetable, mom or dad would knead the dough and make wrappers. All my brothers and sisters would do the wrapping. Everyone had their unique way of wrapping so that the dumpling would come out in different shapes. My little sisters liked to make it into some weird things. Mom said it didn’t matter because they would all disappear in our stomachs. She also said, “Without you all, we couldn’t make so many dumplings!” Our work was appreciated, and our tummies were full. The day was even more satisfying when we got to snack on the leftover all day long.
My lunch box was always two times bigger than other girls’. You can imagine how embarrassing it was for me to eat from such a big lunch box! I protested all the time, but my mother ignored it, saying that it was nonsense that I was trying to be on a diet. There was a service at that time where people picked up lunch boxes from homes and deliver them to schools. My classmates loved my daily hot fresh lunch box. They gathered to check it when I opened the lid. Some days when I saw I got two but one lunch boxes, then I knew there were dumplings tightly packed inside. My mother knew that my classmates would be eagerly wanting to have some, and she let me share. When my classmates saw the dumplings, they would let out the cheer, and we would have a happier-than-usual meal time.
For decades, I have made dumplings using my mother’s recipe, which not only soothed my homesickness but also produced the most delicious dumplings for us. My daughters have learned the skill and liked to make it whenever they have time. I am glad that the tradition has been passed on. As I have kept my sweet memory, they will, too.