What’s really in a Dumpling? Food, the Great Communicator

Food, the great communicator.

I truly believe this.

I can’t imagine a medium better than food that conveys so much heart and soul and information about a person or people in a single and deliberate act.

As I sit here cleaning up my article, attempting to make it somewhat less of a mess, I’m thinking about the dumplings in the freezer in front of me. It could be that it’s past lunch time and I’ve worked to the point of only having time to feed myself two hard-boiled eggs and half a bowl of basmati rice, but more likely it’s due to the fact that I’ve often been pondering exactly what it is I’d like to do with my writing, cooking and traveling in general. How to make it work, and why should it?

How does that thought tie into the dumplings in the freezer? Not easily, but it does. Bare with me a moment because I know you will agree.

At one time, before I plowed my way through several bags of these dumplings, before my girlfriend ate a week or two worth of her fair share, there were quite probably a few hundred packaged and frozen in the freezer.

Her parents usually eat plain and safe, the food they’ve known their whole lives. White rice one day, is different than the next days white rice because this one has more water. It’s more of a porridge I’m told. On the third day the white rice has even more water, and now they hand me rice soup. On the day after that, they add boiled cabbage to it until it is cabbage and white rice soup. Again I’m served the same dish but with less water this time, and now they give me boiled cabbage and white rice porridge. The next day it’s just white rice and boiled cabbage. Six different dishes.

I used to do this as well when I was younger. I only ate those foods that I knew and knew well. But I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of growing up amongst more diversity. They did not. I was not limited to what the labor might produce all that lay in the land for that season or that day. Eating meat was nothing out of the ordinary for me.

Dumplings for me growing up, were more often than not on hand at any given time. I did not eat them once a year or for special occasions like Westerners are so used to doing with ham or turkey. A difference being these things-a ham or turkey-is claimed to be a holiday meal, but these things are eaten daily. Tradition dictates that it’s a holiday meal, but if you think about it, it’s not so much of what the meals consist of that make it fit for a holiday for people like myself, but more so the amount of food involved. But her parents and her family were to eat a holiday meal, it was literally only afforded on that holiday.

I’ve been told of the time her grandmother had the task of procuring the only chicken their whole family would eat for the year. This chicken was for a New Years meal. She walked, carrying this chicken for several days until she eventually showed up at the door of her family, tired and covered in chicken shit. That night the chicken was kept in the backyard. That morning the chicken was gone. It was simply stolen. The family didn’t eat meat that year.

These are the same people that I sit down to eat dinner with, who offer me plate after plate of food-meat, vegetables, noodles-and I am expected to eat. If I didn’t eat it would be insulting to them, no matter how much food I’m offered. But more than that, more than being full at the end of a meal, it’s to show I love and respect them, that I acknowledge their ability to provide and I don’t take for granted the very different lives they’ve led and the struggle required for them to be able to stuff me with a variety of traditional dishes that to this day, they sometimes still feel ashamed of. They think their food might not be to my liking or up to my privileged standards. When they think like this, they are wrong. I love the food, but more than that, I love the offer, intentions and more so the heart behind it.

When I see all of these dumplings and I think of how her parents and family had made these for us in their absence-they’ve taken their first vacation for the first time ever in the 60 years or so they’ve been on this planet-I can’t help but think of what goes into that.

If anyone knows what goes into a homemade dumpling, then you can’t either.

The ingredients are prepared, the dough is made and cut and the dumplings are moistened and pinched shut. It is very much the equivalent of hand rolling hundreds of raviolis, but with dough twice as thin. When I think about the effort that goes into one, and the seven seconds it takes me to eat three, I feel at times I am not appreciative enough.

So, I like to think, to reflect on the tradition involved in a dumpling, in the common struggle of an at one time peasant people, the heart, the soul, the country, the palette, the history, the intention put into all of these so that my belly may be full for an afternoon in their absence.

And that to me, means a lot considering we’ve probably spoken a total of a dozen words to each other in the two years I’ve known them, because neither of them speak more than a handful of English and I don’t speak a word of Chinese.

These dumplings however, they say it all.

Food, the great communicator.