personal essay

I’m Living for These Rule-Breaking, Fridge-Clearing Dumplings Right Now

published Jan 7, 2021
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The egg container sat empty, devoid of the only item it was designed to hold. The vegetable drawer housed a handful of limp kale and a wrinkly bell pepper. The remaining milk would barely submerge half a bowl of cereal. But then I saw a beacon of hope: Several carrots peeked out from behind the almost-empty milk carton, and I grabbed the bright-orange roots and held them up to my mother as if presenting a chest of buried treasure.

At the start of the pandemic, my parents, who had grown accustomed to only turning on the stove once a day to cook dinner for two, suddenly found themselves fixing every meal at home — with the addition of a daughter who had initially returned home for a temporary visit, only to stick around for much longer than anticipated. Their grocery haul that had become fine-tuned over the years — a dozen eggs, a pound of salmon, a Costco-size basket of berries — had been swiftly disturbed. Suddenly, ingredients like yogurt and spinach were disappearing faster than they could be replenished, while there seemed to always be a surplus of bread teetering on the brink of staleness.

Now, on an August night five months into quarantine, it was early evening, and dinner loomed. Ordering food delivery seemed thoughtless, as we did have bits of produce and pantry items at home, but the ingredients that usually complemented those foods had already been depleted. What we had was a refrigerator of discordant things we weren’t sure how to assemble. In these instances, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink meal that can accommodate a band of misfit ingredients is usually a good solution — fried rice, perhaps? The egg shortage hindered that idea. A hearty stew? We had polished off the tomatoes last night.

Armed with the bushel of carrots I’d just unearthed, my mom rolled up her sleeves and began sifting with purpose through the fridge. She reemerged with leftover squid, woodear mushrooms, and a red onion. From the pantry, she produced what was left of our all-purpose flour, which we had been saving in light of the supermarket shortages. I knew what she was thinking before she even opened her mouth: dumplings.

My mom and I had made dumplings together all my life. Some of my earliest memories of the process involved molding scraps of dough into dinosaur shapes as my mother rolled dumpling skins. While my involvement in the operation expanded as I got older and less clumsy in the kitchen, the ingredient combinations seldom strayed from a few classic composites — the most common were pork with Chinese cabbage; scrambled eggs and chives; and beef with carrots and scallion. The ingredients my mother placed on the countertop now didn’t quite match my dumpling frame of reference. But we were getting hungry, and this would ensure those ingredients didn’t go to waste. It was worth a try.

I set about mixing the dough, while Mom chopped the ingredients for the filling: squid, tofu, carrot, and a host of aromatics and herbs, like ginger, garlic, scallions, cilantro, and parsley. We also sprinkled in some turmeric for a bit of warmth; plus, I’d once read in an Indian cookbook that the spice can be used to reduce the fishiness in seafood.

As we wrapped the fillings in dough, Mom and I chuckled while wondering aloud if my grandmother, who takes pride in the traditional art of Chinese dumpling making, would consider our concoction sacrilegious. But just because things have been done one way for a long time doesn’t forbid a little kitchen experimentation. This was a marriage between following tradition and choosing practicality; tonight, we were leaning on the reliability of something tried and true, but adapting the fillings for a bit of fun — and also out of sheer obligation, because it was past dinnertime.

When the wrapping was done, we popped the dumplings into a steamer basket on the stovetop. This was a shift from tradition, too, as we usually boil our dumplings. This seafood filling was more delicate than what we typically make, though, and we were concerned the turbulence of boiling water could render our tightly sealed dumplings a leaky mess. Steaming would ensure they held their half-moon shapes.

Half an hour later, my parents and I sat down to dinner. When I took my first bite from the bowl of dumplings before me, I didn’t expect much — anything halfway-decent would have been a win. I was unprepared for the noise of delight that left my throat, for my mom’s eyes to light up, for my father’s second and third helpings. The complex flavor profile derived from the umami of the squid, sweetness of the carrots, and tang of the tofu balanced each other delectably, their harmony further heightened by the aroma of the blend of spices. And it was a bonus that our creation also saved several ingredients from spoilage.

After dinner, I insisted that we write down the recipe to preserve our mother-daughter creation for posterity. “Dumplings to make for Grandma someday,” I penned at the top of the page.

We’ve since made these dumplings a few more times in quarantine, and we’ve also experimented with other ingredient medleys that deviated from our dumpling comfort zone — each attempt yielding varying, but all quite high, levels of enthusiasm. The mild sourness of pickled mustard greens melded delectably with ground turkey, a union inspired by one of northeast China’s best-loved filling combinations (the meat is customarily pork). Mackerel and chive dumplings served in fish broth tasted buttery yet light, a warming and cozy meal on a particularly cold night. 

All this trying of new things has been a reminder for us that putting away the recipes and following our gut in the kitchen can lead to a very happy, well, gut — and some unexpectedly delicious new creations. I suppose this is in part how cuisine evolves over time; it often results from experimentation fueled by necessity, yet later develops into closely held tradition. And in a year when virtually nothing was traditional, a bit more tradition-breaking, on our own terms, has been both practical and necessary — a productive distraction in times of disquiet.

As our months in quarantine inch onward, my family has developed a clearer grasp of our weekly grocery needs for three: how many eggs, how much spinach, how many pounds of apples. Most of the time, our shopping cart closely resembles that of the week before. But sometimes, while browsing a grocery shelf, we’ll stumble upon an ingredient that we’re curious to try but aren’t exactly sure how to use. My mom will usually hover on the threshold of indecision but, thanks to kitchen confidence that’s been boosted a bit by some experimental successes, ultimately decide to drop it in the cart. In these moments, I always see her eyes glimmer — with the promise of fun experimentation, and the possibility of a grand slam.