Even as I was growing up, it was undeniable to me that food was a constant centerpiece in my life. It was practically in my blood--the Chinese love to eat. Some eat to live and some live to eat. My family was the latter. We often greet one another with “want to get a bite?” and my family sometimes wonders aloud (during dinner, nonetheless) what tomorrow’s breakfast will be. With food-obsessed people as my norm, I have surrounded myself with tasty morsels that fill me up with love. One of these foods has been the diverse dumpling. Dumplings or the idea of a wrapper around a tasty filling has captured the world: from Ravioli in Italy, turnovers in America, to empanadas in Mexico. For me, jiaozi, the Chinese edition, is my dumpling.
My first food memory centered around the jiaozi Lao Lao (my grandma) made. They were immaculate, a tender ball of pork with cabbage ribbons running through, surrounded by a skin of delicate flour. Lao Lao would always make jiaozi in the sunny, bright kitchen--chopsticks in her hands, wrapping balls of fleshy meat artisanally around their blanket of puffy dough. Juicy, they oozed their enticing perfume around the whole house as I, five or six, chubby, buck-toothed, and always dressed in Hello Kitty shirts, would wait by Lao Lao’s side, chopsticks in hand, ready to chow down ten of them. I’d always try to help, offering to sample the raw meat. “Bu yao chi! Shi sheng de!” Lao Lao would always scold. Don’t eat it, it’s raw! I would squint up confusedly, too impatient to wait for the jiaozi to do their boiling ritual and then enter my overeager mouth.
Eventually, I would try making jiaozi myself. Lao Lao made folding them look so easy, even graceful, always ending up with a polished jiaozi. Mine, in comparison, looked wimpy and the filling was practically squirting out. They were unappetizing to say the least. Lao Lao gently soothed me, and smoothed out my curly mess, telling me I’d get better with practice. I would often nod and try not to look too disappointed.
No practice would allow me to achieve the rhythmic timbre of folding, sticking and filling that Lao Lao had perfected. She has done this ritual hundreds and hundreds of times-- on everyday occasions and whenever we don’t know what to eat, we will immediately gravitate towards the soothing jiaozi. The freezer is chock full of them and whenever Lao Lao is going back to China, she prepares them in batches and tells Mom to heat them up whenever we are hungry. But jiaozi were for special occasions as well: Lao Lao had once said that “even when you are poor, you have to eat jiaozi during Chinese New Year.” Her bold statement refers to the jiaozi’s auspicious shape, which recalls gold ingots and fortune.
When cooked, jiaozi were not only a lucky symbol but a stabilizing presence on the table as well, a bit of Lao Lao and the hard life she had growing up in revolutionary China. It was something we rarely ever talked about but I knew Lao Lao’s upbringing had taught her to save and hang on to the superstitions of fortune and jiaozi. She had grown up in the throes of fighting and government instability where food was not as plenty, and money was tight. With Mom being born near the end of the revolution, Lao Lao had to use creativity to stretch the shoestring budget, in order to feed the family. Lao Lao proudly recalls how she made the filling more cabbage than meat, vegetables being cheaper. “You couldn’t even taste the difference,” she said, winking. Indeed- the jiaozi she made were virtuous, and hardy inside, symbolizing the hard work it took for Lao Lao to raise Mom while working night shifts at a local school. She makes the same jiaozi for us today, never ceasing her constant care for Kathy, my sister, and me. I feel her love, support and strength in every bite I take as she repeats her jiaozi customs once again.
Jiaozi also stood for the visit we made back to China every two years to visit my dad’s family. Nai Nai, my dad’s mother, always greeted us in Xi’an, China, along with my uncle, aunt and cousins. We always went to Jiao Zi Yan, Dumpling Shop, to sample jiaozi in every shape and size imaginable. There were fish jiaozi with egg eyes, hazelnut jiaozi, jiaozi in the shape of monkeys, lotus flower jiaozi. We gathered around a large table, dipping vinegar and chili oil in delicate saucers, shoving heavenly ingots into our open mouths. At the end of a meal, we were served a steamy chicken broth and told to ladle jiaozi the size of our fingernails into our bowls. The number we got symbolized our fortune for the rest of the year; too often, one of us would spoon only soup into our bowls and the rest of the family reassured us no jiaozi meant no worries. We’d laugh and joke with each other (“Are you sure that was a chicken jiaozi? It looked like a duck one to me…”) and take our traditional picture in front of the restaurant's golden jiaozi statue. Although I don’t see Nai Nai as often as I would like to, our visits to Jiao Zi Yan and the drool worthy jiaozi reminds me of her ceaseless support and hope for the best for us.
I was, and still am, in a way, a jiaozi myself: shaped and molded by Chinese hands, Mom and Lao Lao’s experience behind me. I am living and thriving in America, but my roots are in Chinese culture, both of my grandma’s history behind me. This intermingling of cultures, traditions, love and strength are as omnipresent every day as these jiaozi are on my dinner plate.