Chen Family Dumplings

My family members always said I was just like my grandmother.  It wasn’t until I became older that I realized that was the compliments of all compliments.  She was the matriarch of our family and she was also the matriarch of the kitchen.  Her time spent in the kitchen was a blessing to us all.  She made enough food to cover an entire dining table on a typical Tuesday night.  And most of all, she was happy doing it.  Feeding her family was her greatest joy of all.

My beautiful grandmother in Taiwan in the 1940s.

I may not be the matriarch of my family, but I have held the reigns in the kitchen with my mother as long as I can remember.  My mother and aunts confirmed that I was always eager to help and always followed my grandmother’s steps around the kitchen.  I wanted to be like her – and in some ways, I was.  Cooking has become enjoyable for me, but cooking for my friends has become the greatest joy of all.

Growing up in the pre-dominantly White suburbs of Orange County might have seemed like a dream for many people, but for me, it wasn’t exactly that.  I struggled to find my identity and struggled to accept my Chinese American heritage for a majority of my upbringing.  Somehow, food found its way right into the heart of this obstacle.  The only Chinese food I came across was home cooked meals with my family or family dinners at authentic Chinese restaurants thirty minutes from home in Chinese neighborhoods.  Most times, my friends had authentic Chinese cooking for the first time in my home.  And most times, they thought it was strange.

My first time in San Francisco with my grandmother, mother and brother.  My bob haircut has since grown out.

High school was tug and pull.  It was around this time that I became aware that I was blatantly ignoring my identity.  Being one of very few Asians at my high school and not having any Asian friends, I never embraced my culture.  Many times, I felt like the odd man out, but I never did anything about it.  But at some point, my attitude took a change for the better and my naive state-of-mind was a bit altered.  I wasn’t embarrassed to have friends at my house anymore.

More than anything, my mother loved to cook for my friends and I when we were home, even when she didn’t really have the time.  Although a natural worrywart and hard worker, she somehow found the time to cook dinner every night – no exceptions.  Her consistency in the kitchen proved dedication.  My mother’s dumplings quickly became my friends’ favorite dish of choice and they started to request them whenever they were at my house.  I felt a sense of pride.  And not for myself, but for my mom.

College.  My move to San Francisco changed me in ways I never thought were possible.  Mind you, I had lived in Orange County suburbia for 18 years.  It was during my first weeks in the city that I truly immersed myself with my Chinese culture.  I don’t know if it was the air or change of scenery, but my outlook was altered.  The diverse surroundings impacted my thoughts and a new group of friends influenced my outlook on people.  I noticed passion from other students of different ethnicities – something I never came across at home.  It was baffling to me, but I liked it.  Being a Chinese American wasn’t weird.  It was who I was and I wanted to embrace it.

The ladies in my family have mastered the craft of dumpling making.  I remember at a young age watching my grandmother, mother and aunts carefully prepare the ingredients for dumplings that would feed nearly twenty of my family members at a time.  The women sat, chatted and folding dumplings while the men were scattered around the house.  There was never a specified occasion for making dumplings, but they fed a lot of people and were easy to make.  When the dumplings were ready to be served, everyone in the family gathered around the table.  Convenience and tradition at its finest.

My mother leading the dumpling making party in San Francisco.

My mother visited me in San Francisco last April for the first time.  My grandmother’s death in late August of 2008 prevented my mother from moving me up to San Francisco when I had first started college.  When she finally made the trip in 2011, I had raved about my mother’s cooking to my friends (something I never did in grade school or high school).  Upon my mother’s arrival, my friends had begged for her dumplings.  Naturally, my mother had already planned on my making some sort of meal.  Not only did she make the dumplings, she recruited the help of my friends and she taught them how to make them.  We sat around the table, learning how to fold dumpling wraps with filling.  It was a sight I never thought I’d see and never thought I’d appreciate.  My friends and family together, recreating my family’s tradition.  Needless to say, a smile was stuck on both my mother and my face.

For the first time, I attempted to make my family’s dumplings on my own this past Sunday.  Naturally, I had the help of my friends without having to ask.  Four girl friends and I ventured to Clement Street and picked up all the ingredients needed for the recipe.

My friends getting a taste of my family’s tradition over wine and good times.

And it was just like I remembered.  But instead of seeing my grandmother, mother and aunts surrounding the table, I was with six of my closest girl friends chatting over a messy table of dumpling wraps and pork filling.  Prepping turned into laugher and a few too many glasses of wine.  The boys had invited themselves over to watch the Laker game, knowing dumplings would be served for dinner.  Before we knew it, we had intricately folded one hundred dumplings and about fifteen hungry people filled the house.  An impromptu Sunday family dinner was heavily in the works.

The dumplings were conveniently ready at half time and the boys filled the kitchen and dining room – hovering over our shoulders, ready to devour the food.  Everyone gathered in the dining room and we shared a meal that was a tradition in my family.  I remember saying one few many times to my friends, “Yeah, that’s my mom’s recipe.”  Apologies for bragging, but I was damn proud.

It had never crossed my mind that someday I would make my family’s dumplings with my friends, let alone without my family present.  But this last weekend, it happened with my new family.  For the first time, I found my identity as a first generation Chinese American and openly shared it with my friends through food.  This time, instead of being proud for my mom, I was proud of myself.  And the Lakers won.  It was the perfect night.

This dish is much more simple to make than you think.  I was a bit intimidated at first, but I realized I had folded hundreds of dumplings in my lifetime.  My muscle memory kicked in and voila – they tasted exactly like my mother’s.

Below is my family recipe for dumplings.  Meals have the power to bring people together and there is nothing more I’d rather share.  For more photos of my family and detailed photos of the dumpling-making progress, take a look at my Flickr set.

Chen Family Dumplings

INGREDIENTS (Enough to feed a large family.  Servings: 100 dumplings)

– Dumpling wraps (4 packaged bags)

– Dish for water (to stick dumpling wraps together)

THE FILLING

– 4 lbs. ground pork

– 1 large cabbage (chopped)

– 2 cups uncooked shrimp

– 1 bundle green onions

– 1 large egg

– 3 tablespoons sesame oil

– salt

THE SAUCE – There are no exact measurements, taste to flavor!  Let the sauce sit for an hour (or even overnight) to let the flavors absorb.

– soy sauce based (fill about half a bowl)

– a generous 2-3 tablespoons of sesame oil

– 2-3 tablespoons of rice vinegar

– 1 bundle of green onions

– 6 cloves of garlic (your breath will smell awful)

-2 tablespoons of sugar

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, shrimp, green onions, egg, sesame oil and salt.  Mix ingredients together until well combined.  Filling is complete.
  2. Take one dumpling wrap and place a spoonful of filling onto the wrap.
  3. Use finger and gently apply water to half of the dough.
  4. Fold dough over and pinch until the entire dumpling is sealed.  Keep filling inside the dough.
  5. Set aside and repeat.
  6. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
  7. Place about 20 dumplings at a time.  Let water come to a boil again.  Add a cup of water and let the water boil once more.
  8. Laddle out the dumplings.  Serve immediately!
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