By Mengfei Chen
The first time I made dumplings on my own, I didn’t know how much salt to add. Stumped before a huge bowl full of raw ground pork, I messaged my mother to ask for her recipe.
Her reply: “No recipe.”
Then, perhaps thinking of my previous attempts to extract cooking instructions from her, she added: “Chives, pork, egg, salt, sugar and sesame oil. Maybe chopped up shrimp.”
Well into adulthood I thought dumplings had to be filled with a combination of minced pork and chives. This seemed as essential to the cultural and culinary integrity of the dumpling as cheese and ground beef are to that of the cheeseburger. A few times, if my grandmother had had a productive day foraging on the school soccer field, we’d have dumplings stuffed with chicken greens…and pork and chives. If my mother, for many years the only member of our family who liked seafood, had her way, there was shrimp…and pork and chives. When I came across Ling Ling Chicken and Vegetable Potstickers (“America’s favorite potsticker”) at Costco, this only reinforced my belief that real Chinese dumplings had to be made with pork and chives.
After I moved to Beijing for work, I found restaurants serving an endless variety of dumplings with alien fillings. Pork and fennel. Pork and mushrooms. Pork and lotus. Beef and celery. Egg and tomatoes. Lamb and carrot. There were even dumplings stuffed with diced thousand year egg and spicy bites of Sichuan-style mapo tofu.
My faith in the pork and chive dumpling turned out to be a failure to understand that immigrant cooking, like immigrant life, consists of a series of false synecdoches for the land left behind. My mother only made dumplings with pork and chives. It does not follow then that all Chinese dumplings must be made this way. A Chinese American friend told me that as a child she insisted Kung Pao Chicken, like big box potstickers, was Americanized Chinese food. She refused to believe otherwise because the sweet and spicy sauce resembled nothing her parents ever made at home. It was only when she too moved to China after college that she realized Kung Pao chicken could be found on many menus and that there was a Calvin Trillin poem full of Chinese regional cuisines that she’d never encountered.
This week I made dumplings for Chinese New Year. Back in the kingdom of single filling dumplings (otherwise known as my mother’s suburban Californian kitchen), I chopped up chives and defrosted ground pork. Once more stumped about salt, I left the seasoning to my mother. I watched her as she cracked in two eggs and a dash of soy sauce, then sprinkled in salt and sugar. No measuring spoons, just memory and an optimist’s faith that there is nothing that can’t be fixed by the dipping sauce. We folded the dumplings in a two-person assembly line.
“Being at home makes me want to ask you question about everything,” I said with one hand hesitating over the pot of boiling water. “I almost asked you if there is a right way to drop the dumplings into the water.”
She smiled and said.
“There’s no right way. Just get them in the pot.”