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Year of the Dumpling 

How a simple meat-filled dough pocket became the dish of billions

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Seated at the other side of a wide, tiled table, Jian Golder prepares to tell me a story. The kind of person who performs rather than talks, Golder unclasps her hands as she prepares to animate the past. She takes a deep breath, and then dives in.

This is her history. But it’s also the story of a teacher, a student, and 1,800 years of Chinese history folded into the shape of an ear.

Her story begins with a doctor, Zhang Zhongjing. During the Han dynasty, the man had made a name for himself developing many of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine.

Golder says that when the doctor paid a visit to his birthplace, the central city of Nanyang, he was horrified by what he found.

The people were dying, overtaken by fever, hunger, cold, or some brutal combination of the three. What overtook Zhongjing most was the state of their ears — grotesque and blackened from frostbite.

In Chinese culture, it is believed that medicine begins in the kitchen, explains Golder. So the doctor devised a cure — a mixture of ingredients that would warm them and restore the dying to health.

First, he mixed the meat of a goat, she says, with special herbs and spices. Zhongjing took bits of the mixture and placed them on small circles of thinly rolled dough, then folded them into pockets — pockets in the shape of ears.

The pockets were boiled and served to the people. The doctor’s creations, jiaozi, are what we call Chinese dumplings today. Though there are many variations, Chinese traditionally eat shuijiao, which, literally translated, means “water dumpling.” Most Americans probably recognize them as “pot stickers,” but that’s an entirely different dish — a snack food that’s fried instead of boiled.

Golder says we don’t see shuijiao much stateside — they don’t mesh well with American tastes.

Shuijiao are present at most holidays, especially, says Golder, the 15-day celebration of Chinese New Year, which is now upon us, with celebrations beginning locally on January 23.

Because I wanted to learn more about the food of Chinese New Year, I met with Golder, a member of the Spokane Chinese Association, to learn some history. Less than an hour into our first meeting at her home, it was decided — she would teach me the right way to make this food. The dish of choice was, and had to be, shuijiao.

The sound of Golder’s laugh fills whatever space she’s in. This time, it’s my car. Soon, it will be our destination, Best Asian Market on East Sprague. She wanted us to do this dumpling thing right, buying the ingredients to make them from scratch and giving me a lesson in shopping at Asian markets.

Our shopping list was as follows:

  • Sesame oil
  • Soy sauce
  • Ground pork sausage
  • Chives
  • Ginger

You could say Golder is a food historian of sorts — in addition to being a nationally read columnist for two major Chinese-American newspapers, she’s published four books in Chinese under her pen name “Rong Rong.” One is a pseudo-cookbook called My American Kitchen. It chronicles her experiences with American cuisine and traces the origins of recipes like clam chowder. She likes to know why people eat what they do.

Eating a traditional Chinese dumpling isn’t the only focus, she says. The cooking process is, in many ways, as important as the finished product for Chinese people.

“The making [of] dumplings itself is like a celebration,” she says, adding that the whole family gathers around for the event. “A ceremony, a kind of ceremony, you know.”

As we walk through the aisles of the market, she acts as a tour guide, often abandoning the cart to point out various roots and colorful packages. Like lotus leaves the size of a desktop — for wrapping food. Or a fuzzy brown root that tastes like a salt-and-peppered yam. Or beautifully folded frozen wonton filled with shrimp. These are from southern China, where seafood is a staple.

Shopping in the store with us is a family of Vietnamese refugees.

The owner of the market, Van Chiu, explains that the store is an essential element for these families and other members of the local Asian community. Having access to familiar foods and utensils reduces the culture shock, says Chiu, who was a refugee himself.

“It’s a challenge for them,” says Chiu, adding that the staples of our cuisine — like cheese and dairy — are unfamiliar to the Asian palate.

We look over at the refugee family with a cart full of food, and they smile. Chiu gives us a cookie and a Chinese zodiac calendar after we pay, and then we are on our way again.

Golder does not like machine-made dumpling wrappers. The entire day, she has been spouting anti-machine-made sentiments: They are too chewy, they don’t cook well, they are a hassle to fold. A passion for dumplings means making your own dough, says Jian.

In fact, she insisted we purchase a stack of circular and perfectly thin machine-made wrappers so I could see for myself just how bad they are, compared to homemade.

Jian pulls out the dough she prepared earlier, made with one cup of regular flour and one-third of a cup of water. It needs to be soft, but not too soft, or it will disintegrate in the boiling water.

After rolling it into a long snake shape, she slices it into pieces about half an inch thick. Then, with rolling pin in hand, she rolls over the slice once. Holding an edge of each piece, she rolls out the dough, quickly rotating it as she rolls. Soon, the homemade wrappers begin to pile up.

She picks through and dices chives, adding them to the meat in a saucepan, along with some Chinese cooking wine, a bit of salt and sugar, and touch of soy sauce. She makes me mix it together with chopsticks, which makes my hands cramp.

On the stove, water boils, and we begin to wrap the dumplings. “Some people don’t know how to do it, so they put them together like a moon,” says Golder, demonstrating two wrappers on top of each other, kind of like circular ravioli.

The dumplings need to be boiled three times to cook them well.

When they are put into boiling water, the bubbles disappear. When the water rises to a boil again, Golder adds a cup of water. She repeats this two more times. Then, they’re done.

“Let’s sit down and eat,” says Jian. She hands me a spoon, clearly not impressed with my chopstick skills from earlier.

We eat, dipping them in sauce made from the sesame oil, soy sauce, green onion and garlic.

I notice I feel warm.

Chinese New Year cultural fair and traditional dinner • Sat, Jan. 22 • Central Valley High School • 821 S. Sullivan Rd. • Tickets $10-$25 • Visit spokanechinese.org

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