Growing up, my father was always the chef in the kitchen. With my chin cupped in my hands and my mouth watering, I asked for recipes and ingredients. His response: “Use whatever is in the kitchen, and then use your mouth to tell you if it tastes good or not.” I like to think I inherited my love for food and heightened sensitive taste buds of flavorful flavors from him.
Papa Wu was particularly famous for his spareribs and that to-die-for juicy sauce bedded on fluffy white rice. His spareribs were such a staple in our family that my childhood friends who slept over asked with wide and eager eyes and drooling mouths, “Is your father going to make HIS spareribs?” My friends probably slept over more so for his food rather than me!
As my father has aged, his wok and chopsticks were handed to my stepmother. Over time, my stepmother developed such memorable dishes as sticky chicken wings, twice-baked potatoes, and peanut butter rolls. When my stepmother came into our lives, there was a newfound and blossoming love affair with noodles that ALMOST surpassed the rice grains that I greedily shoveled into my mouth with chopsticks.
However, the ONE food in the Wu household that brings all of us together are *drumroll please* : Dumplings. Dumplings made their way slowly into our lives and quickly into our stomachs. Truth be told, I do not even know how dumplings became our go-to bonding dish. I just vaguely remember my Dad, Stepmother, and me scooping our innovative creative filling of shrimp, shards of cooked Chinese glass noodles, and pork into the very center of the dumpling skins, spreading an index full of water on the edges, and folding the skins together until we had our pillowy pockets of dumplings closed up and ready to cook and eat. The back of my throat tickles with joy when I think about dipping those steamy hot dumplings into soya sauce, sesame oil, pungent Chinese black vinegar, and spicy hot chili paste while the tender meat and the soft skin melt in my mouth and make me close my eyes in sheer joy. Just about every weekend that I visit my parents, there is a bowl of piled dumplings so high that I could probably call it “Mount Dumpling.” Needless to say, “Mount Dumpling” disappears quicker than it appears. I must confess that these dumplings are now frozen from the store, but that one single memory of making dumplings with my parents has never been forgotten.
The magical power of dumplings returned in my life outside of my family recently when a nearby neighbor invited me to make dumplings on a day that I was almost forced to forge due to a broken bathroom sink pike. I scrambled, plead, and even cried to a plumber to please fix this ASAP. I was NOT going to miss making these dumplings. I would do whatever it took. When there is a will, there is a way. Almost an hour and a half late and after a pipe duly fixed, I made it to my neighbor’s place in a very overstressed and overwhelmed state over the latest household debacle. However, as soon as I sat down in the company and companionship with my neighbor and three other women, every tension began to fall away. I saw this neighbor as an advanced dumpling maker because she had a most simple homemade recipe for the dumpling skin. No store bought here. Everything as homemade as could be. I began to fall into an easy and soothing pattern of roll, scoop, and pinch close. I began to forget all my ‘adult’ and ‘first world problems.’ I also began to remember that special memory of making dumplings with my dad and stepmother. I heard my father who did not have any recipes in the kitchen and all in his memories, mouth, and keen sense of taste: “Use what you got and make it good.”
On that beautiful summer day with a balmy breeze, I made dumplings with these women who I had the great gift and fortune of getting to know. There was lots of laughter, lots of conversation, lots of sharing of life stories, and, most of all, lots of eating. Perhaps one of the reasons I love food so much is because of the great power it possesses. Food has the power to bring people together to create on a communal basis. Food gives an unspoken permission for people to be vulnerable in their method of making and in a safe place of sharing. Food has the greatest power for us got make good from what we got.
Dumplings have provided me with one of my most treasured memories with my parents. Dumplings gave me new memories with these four women that I can guarantee you that I never would have even talked to if it weren’t for this dumpling-making gathering. When has something so simple been so incredible in bringing you closer together to share and care for each other? Have you ever been in a place of sharing so comfortably and easily with people outside your inner circle? What childhood memory do you have of food or some other commonality that brought your loved ones together? When did you ‘use what you got and made it good’?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,