To properly mold a dumpling, my mom tells me, you first need to ensure that you have the correct amount of filling. Too much, and filling will leak out the sides, sullying the boiling water and causing it to fall apart. Too little, and each bite will be too doughy and unsatisfying.
I’m seven or eight years old, and I nod as I watch my mom deftly scoop xian’er, or dumpling filling, from an aluminum bowl into a dumpling skin settled neatly in her palm, showing her that I’ve heard her instructions. Her sleeves are rolled up, her hair is tucked behind her ears, and flour covers her hands and sprinkles her navy blue apron. Her fingers flutter over the dough, seemingly without thought: a fold over the filling, a pinch in the middle, and a couple squeezes between her thumb and the side of her index finger at each end to form a line of perfect creases. Before long, these crescents stuffed with meat, spring onions, and ginger fill the plate next to her, and I impatiently look on as I know only a brief spell in the pot separates me from devouring them.
At this age, I’m simply an observer. I watch and listen, tucking the images of my mom’s skill away in my mind. But I’m still a child and I look to my mom for guidance. Just learning is enough.
By eleven or twelve, I begin helping. Glad that I can finally participate, my mom trusts me with the easiest task: Now I don the apron as I roll out skin after skin, and my side of the cutting board is dotted with lopsided white circles. I’ve learned how to position the rolling pin so that the dough underneath rotates unassisted, and I marvel at how each thumb-sized ball I start with magically flattens into a disk. After dozens of attempts, their edges begin to smooth; they are uniform and neat. Now I ask eagerly to assist every time I notice my mom making dumplings, excited to show off my new skill.
One day, when I’m a teenager, she challenges me to expand my skill set — she tells me to fold the dumplings. Even though I’ve watched her mold them perfectly hundreds of times, my own hands disobey my brain. As I pinch the edges and work my way toward the center, the filling leaks out the sides, making my fingers sticky. While my mom’s dumplings are curved, neat, and creased along the fold, mine are flat, misshapen, and lack uniformity. Soon my mom scoops the dumpling I’m struggling to fold out of my hands. She curves her palm around it, pinches the sides, and within seconds my disaster is fixed. She kindly tells me I just need practice, and I am relieved to hand the task over to her. I go back to my familiar job of rolling out the skins, still able to help but unable to do more.
It’s the summer before my freshman year of college, and my mom is trying to teach me as many recipes as she can before I leave for school. One day, she approaches me — she wants me to make dumplings from scratch, all on my own. While I’m usually enthusiastic about cooking together, that day I balk.
I’m scared — not scared to mess up, because I know I will. If I have learned anything about cooking this summer, it’s that I’m a clumsy mess in the kitchen. My knife cuts are irregular, and most vegetables I stirfry come out in varying degrees of doneness. I lack culinary intuition, constantly questioning if what I’m doing is correct.
When it came to dumplings, I have always been the helper and never the chef. When I placed each circle of dough into my mom’s hand, it was more than just a step of a recipe; I was trusting that she would always be there. Cooking with her was comforting; it felt like home, and it felt like childhood.
The more she asks, however, the harder it becomes to say no. Finally I agree, and I find myself wearing my mom’s navy blue apron. Beginning the recipe feels like a step forward that I can never take back. I sink my hands into the mixture of flour and water, and I feel myself sinking into adulthood. The dough clings to my hands as I try to pull my hands out of the bowl, leaving dredges that dangle from my fingertips. I’m frustrated as I try to shake them off, and it feels like I’m trying to shake away the reality that I’m trying so hard to avoid: I have to grow up soon.
The apprehension sticks to the back of my mind in the same way the dough sticks to my fingers. I grow more unsure of myself: My mom stops me before I add an ingredient out of sequence, I ask her to repeat a step for the third time, and my dumplings fall over themselves after I fold them.
The dumplings have finally finished boiling, and I lift the lid of the pot. I ladle each doughy lump onto a plate — this step, at least, I have practiced many times. I pluck one from the platter with my chopsticks, steam billowing into the air. I blow on it once and gingerly bite off half, taking care not to burn myself.
I nervously wait for the flavor to hit my tongue. After a few seconds the taste registers. It’s different from my mom’s — maybe slightly saltier — even though I followed her instructions exactly. But it’s still familiar, still good.
I’m relieved that I haven’t completely botched the recipe, but also surprised that I don’t mind the slight foreignness of the taste and texture. Somehow, I don’t feel the burden to perfectly imitate my mom’s dish anymore. I’ve learned enough from my mom to make it differently — even unintentionally. Rather than leaving my childhood behind, I’m equipped to take it with me. And, wherever I am, making dumplings will always remind me of home.
— Magazine writer Jane Z. Li can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JaneZLi.