The only recipe my mother left me was the Chinese chive and pork dumpling. During Christmas of 2016, I demanded she teach me how to make them and insisted that she write it down. I make her dumplings often, to feel as if she were still alive.
I was never able to feel my mother’s presence again through replicating the taste of her dumplings, because I’ve come to accept that she did not write a recipe at all! There are two main components to making dumplings from scratch: the skin and the filling. A desirable, homemade dumpling is thin skinned and generously filled. An inferior dumpling, or what my mother referred to as a mechanized, commercial dumpling, is the opposite: the skin is thick and the filling is scanty. I could not find the secret to achieving that desirable dumpling with what she wrote.
Instead of 2 cups of flour, she wrote “enough flour to feed the family.” Instead of prescribing the ratio of flour to liquid for the dough, it was “the mixture is ready when one observes ‘three kinds of glow’ — your hands glow, your bowl glows, and the dough glows.” Not much luck on the filling either. The recipe was punctured with exclamation marks for tips. “Remember, always stir the filling in a consistent direction, either clockwise or counter-clockwise but not both!…. Do not add the five-spice powder until the end! … Use a cheesecloth to drain the liquid from any vegetable or the filling will break out of the skin when boiling and all your previous effort will have gone to waste!” There are no numbered steps. There was barely a list.
The notion of recipe did not exist for my mother’s generation. She knows when to stop adding salt from the sight and smell of the food. Like most of her generation, much of learning to cook was through oral history and the lived experience of watching others cook. It seems that the desirability of a dumpling is not just measured by the cost of ingredients, but the irreproducible, artisanal labor of the person making it. Are the secrets to the labor as undisclosed to my mother as they are to me? In fact, how did my mother learn to cook? What did she have to imagine? Was it an expression of herself, an obligation, a social currency, or something unquestioned altogether? What does she really like to make? If she could ask for any recipe she’d like, would it be for the dumpling?
Two days ago, I stumbled upon the original text exchange between my mother and me. I had actually asked for the recipe during Chinese New Year of 2016, not Christmas. I wanted a recipe so badly — a fair representation, an accurate chronology, a replicable path to success, a precise rope to the past. What she offered was a myth. There was no objectivity. Each word in the recipe means something to me differently from what it meant to my mother, and beyond what it means intrinsically. Every attempt to revisit the memory alters its path.
Like me, much of the Internet generation is hungry for recipes. The only way to know how to know seems to be asking for “recipes.” We google everything from how to debone a duck to how can I find my life’s work. We turn to anonymous forums and ask data questions like should I quit my job and reasons to marry, data coming from experts, bots, strangers, and trolls. With the publications of recipes, we have lost the ability of private knowing, to know through experience, trial and error, contemplation, and imagination.
I do know this. The original dumpling lodged itself in my heart like a tiny fragment of a divine love, and continues to grow there, against measure.
Dough to make the dumpling skin/wrapper:
- The dough is crucial. Usually two bowls of flour is enough to feed the family.
- Do not add too much water. Add it gradually, never all at once!
- Add a little bit of water first. I usually use a pair of chopsticks to stir first. Once the flour turns into snowflakes, you can start kneading with your bare hands.
- Estimate the dough texture with your senses. Not too hard. Not too soft.
- If you accidentally add too much water, don’t worry. Just add some more flour to the mix and balance.
- Dust everywhere with dry flour when working with the dough.
- You know the dough is ready when you observe three kinds of glow: your hands glow, your bowl glows, and the dough glows.
- Wet a towel and place it above the bowl with the dough. Let it rest while you do the filling, the dough should come together and become silky smooth. But nothing should be sticky.
Pork part of the filling:
- This part is easy. First, put a pinch of salt in ground pork. Remember, always stir the filling in a consistent direction, either clockwise or counter-clockwise but not both!
- You know to stop stirring when you see juice coming out. If it stiffens, add a bit of water and keep stirring!
- The five-spice powder is optional. But do not add it until the end! The meat has to get juicy first!
Chive part of the filling:
- Mince the Chinese chive. You must use fresh chives!
- There should be more oil in the chive mix than the pork. Point your index finger straight at the bottom of a rice bowl, the kind we usually use; pour oil and and the amount of oil shouldn’t exceed the length of your index fingernail. Pardon me, this is a slightly inappropriate description [laugh].
- Stir until you see juice come out!
- Use a cheesecloth to drain the liquid from the vegetable or the filling will break out of the skin when boiling the dumpling and all your previous effort will have gone to waste! This is important!
Mixing chive with pork:
- The key is to blend the chive and pork very evenly.
- You have to smell it. There has to be enough salt for the aroma to emerge.
- For this step you have to use your nose, eyes, and check often. Add salt or five-spice powder if the aroma is not there…
- You will know.
I also enjoyed John Maeda’s recent piece called My Dad’s Fried Chicken Wings Algorithm Has Kept Us Connected This Year.