From the Introduction For some, dumplings are merely the start of a meal, but in my family they sit at the center of the plate.
Whenever we have a family gathering, we make dumplings. When someone leaves for a long trip, we say goodbye with dumplings. When couples get married, their first meal together as spouses may be a feast of one hundred dumplings, because they need at least that many to wrap up all the good fortune we wish upon them.
And of course we make dumplings any night of the week, simply because they taste so good.
My clearest memory from childhood is watching my mother and grandmother at the kitchen table, working together to roll out dough and fold countless dumplings at a time. I was mesmerized by their perfect coordination, shaping each fold with such care and speed. And I couldn’t believe how much food they made out of nothing more than bits of meat, vegetables, and flour.
The magic of eating dumplings was always the surprise of that first bite, a burst of juicy filling and eye-popping flavor that caught me off guard, even though I had seen everything that went into the wrapper. At an early age I had already learned that dumplings spur not one but two kinds of joy: making them, with all the hands in the house around the table, and eating them, for that unexpected moment of delight. Everything I have today I owe to dumplings, and they have always meant more than just a good meal.
I grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Tianjin, a northern port city just southeast of Beijing. When I was very young, the authorities sent my father to a labor camp for daring to speak out against corruption in the local government, which left my mother to raise my brother and me by herself. When I was twelve years old, she decided I was old enough to take the train alone to visit my father at the camp. That morning, she and I made a special batch of dumplings that I carried with me—one of the only comforts of home we could share with him. His eyes lit up when I pulled those dumplings out of my bag—and every time after that I brought a batch on my visits. No matter how hard his life was, I took comfort in knowing that he could always look forward to another batch.
In 1989, I moved to New York to pursue my second college degree, and a few years later I fell in love with a man I met, of all places, in a restaurant. We had our first of three children together in 1997, and after I graduated I became an accountant. I had a good life and a good job, and in a parallel universe I know there’s a Helen who still enjoys that simple life and gets far more sleep than I do now. But a part of me always wanted to be my own boss, so in 2007, with my family’s encouragement, I opened a tiny stall in a steamy underground food court in Flushing, Queens, New York’s most bustling Chinatown. Surrounded by noodle shops and wonton slingers, I naturally made dumplings in the hearty, rustic style of those found in my home city—from scratch and with the freshest ingredients I could find from the nearby markets.
Opening day was slow. We sold all of 150 dumplings—only to local Chinese customers—and business stayed sluggish for a while. But soon, word began to spread, and more people lined up for one of the ten seats at my stall. My original menu had only three kinds of dumplings, and after customers worked their way through those choices, they invariably wanted something new. So I kept developing different flavors to keep them coming back, both with the northern Chinese flavors of home and all the new ingredients I’d find in the American groceries.
My customers also grew more diverse. Encouraged by everything from the New York Times
, which profiled the food court that housed my stall, to Anthony Bourdain, who featured a neighboring vendor on his show No Reservations
, people from all over New York started taking hour-long trips on the subway to explore Flushing’s food scene, and suddenly I was feeding a clientele who claimed they’d never tasted anything like my dumplings before.
Eventually I earned enough to open a full-service restaurant of my very own, an embassy to Chinese dumplings called Dumpling Galaxy, where I could finally offer every kind of dumpling I’ve ever dreamed of. My restaurant’s Chinese name literally translates to “One Hundred Kinds of Dumpling Garden,” and yes, you really will find one hundred different dumplings on the menu. They include classic recipes, like my mother’s favorite ground pork with garlic chive, as well as others I’ve developed, including lamb with summer squash, beef with Indian curry powder, cabbage with snappy wood ear mushrooms, and muscular dried octopus. And I haven’t stopped dreaming: I’m still developing new flavors all the time.
Copyright © 2017 by Helen You with Max Falkowitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.