Karon Liu on Dumpling Magic ‹ Literary Center
I’ve been a Toronto-based food writer for over a decade, and there’s one project I always wanted to do but never did (until now). I wanted to map this city of nearly six million inhabitants through pellets. My map would show the different enclaves and communities based on the location of all pierogi spots versus the locations of wonton soup restaurants or all manti spots.
Toronto is the perfect city to create such a map: a metropolis that has evolved into one of the most diverse culinary destinations in the world, thanks to waves of migration that have brought together cuisines from disparate regions of the world. This place is a mix of cooks practicing age-old techniques learned from previous generations, innovators sharing new creations in the age of TikTok, and cooks embracing their third-culture cuisine – combining what they learned from their parents with the new flavors and methods that come from living in a city where a roti restaurant, a sushi restaurant and a souvlaki joint can all be found in one place.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is Tibet Kitchen in Little Tibet, a strip of Tibetan-owned restaurants and shops in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. Chaat momos are one of my favorite local dishes: these Tibetan (or vegetarian, depending on my mood) meatballs are smothered in a vibrant orange tamarind sauce, then sprinkled with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, yogurt and sevum. crisp, combining Tibetan and Indian. the flavours; it’s an example of successful fusion – the flavors and textures work so well in every bite.
The more I write about food, the more I realize that such an endeavor requires a team of people. Yes, dumplings are universal – that’s why they’re such an easy gateway into a culture’s cuisine. At the same time, there are many variations of dumplings: steamed, fried or boiled; filled or not; sweet or salty; big or small; in soups or alone. There are nuances in cuisines that vary between regions, cities and, heck, households and generations that no one can ever fully grasp.
Dumplings are universal, which is why they’re such an easy gateway into a culture’s cuisine.
Technically, matzo balls in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, xiaolongbao or soup dumplings in Shanghainese cuisine, and Jamaican spinners used in soups and stews are all classified as dumplings. But these dishes don’t have much else in common, other than how delicious they are. I remember being introduced to spätzle as a teenager, when I was invited to a friend’s house to try Austrian home cooking. I gobbled down the spätzle with the schnitzel, puzzled but amazed that the dumplings existed beyond the wontons I ate growing up.
Heck, even with wontons, everyone in my friends and family circles prefers a different filling or fold. A friend prefers the squeezing method – literally putting a little filling in the wrapper and then squeezing his hand into a fist to seal it – because it’s the quickest method (and the most common for sifus in restaurants ). My mom, on the other hand, prefers the fold that makes the dumpling look like someone wearing a beanie because that’s what her mom taught her. Don’t even get me started on the differences between a wonton, water dumpling, potsticker and soup dumpling… mainly because I’m still learning the different techniques and regional variations of each of them as I dive more and more deeply into Chinese cuisine.
What I can do is toss out my hypothetical card with a story about what dumplings mean to me.
Ever since I can remember, when my mom was out of dinner ideas and in a rush, wontons were one of her favorites: ground pork, nappa cabbage, a mix of dark soy sauces and clear with a little cane sugar and a pack of store-bought dumpling wrappers. I watched her pinch a walnut-sized piece of filling from a large metal bowl and place it in the center of the wrapper. She dipped a finger into a bowl of rice filled with water, brushed the edge of the wrapper, and through a series of pinches and creases, a dumpling appeared in seconds.
Now a confession: despite all the times I watched my mom make wontons and promised myself that eventually I would learn the skill so that I could a) have another quick weeknight dinner in my arsenal; and b) gaining some credibility on the street as a guy who writes a lot about Chinese food, I haven’t been able to make dumplings on my own yet.
Doesn’t not being able to fold a perfectly neat, symmetrical wonton make me less of an authority on food writing?
So I consider myself to be in a culinary gray area. I am an experienced food writer whose palate revolves around Cantonese cuisine. And yet, I can’t bend a dumpling to save my life. Doesn’t not being able to fold a perfectly neat, symmetrical wonton make me less of an authority on food writing?
I remember once attending a dumpling folding party – that’s what happens when you have foodie friends. After a few minutes I was gently, uh, encouraged to do something else because I was basically wasting really good wraps with every failed attempt. Oddly enough, my Hungarian partner, who had never touched a dumpling wrapper before, was able to squeeze them out without much effort. Since then, he occasionally makes a few dozen batches to freeze for future meals. Oddly, the way he folds his dumplings is similar to my mother’s technique. I have no idea if this was a secret joint effort between them to push me to try to learn again.
In the early months of COVID-19, in January 2020, I went with friends to a noodle restaurant in Markham called Wuhan Noodle 1950 to order its dry pot noodles and a side of dumplings. Months before the official declaration of the pandemic emergency in Canada, Chinese restaurants had begun to see their business collapse due to old racist stereotypes about Chinese food and cleanliness, all of which had resurfaced amid a quivering fear about the virus.
This particular place had been inundated with racist hoaxes that were perpetuated on social media. Feeling the restaurant could use a positive boost, I went there, had a great meal and wrote about it for the Toronto Star. I explained the restaurant’s regional Chinese cuisine and how a place like this fits into the evolution of Chinese cuisine in the GTA.
In recent years we have seen a greater proliferation of regional Chinese cuisine from independent owners and international chains using the GTA as a test market before expanding elsewhere. Chinese cuisine here evolved from Canadian-Chinese chop suey houses to more Hong Kong and Cantonese cuisine as the GTA saw an influx of immigrants in the 80s and 90s. Then other mainland Chinese people came , bringing their regional cuisine, as well as international Chinese chains serving everything from hot pot to different styles of noodles.
Chinese food is no longer lumped into one giant category, and diners are increasingly aware that hand-pulled beef noodles are representative of Lanhzou, and to get a xiaolongbao steamer basket, you need to go to a Shanghainese place. Although the circumstances in which I discovered this place serving dry noodles from Wuhan were unfortunate, it gave me the opportunity to talk about the dish originating from Hubei province.
Dumplings came into my life again during the first months of the pandemic lockdown in Toronto. Bags of frozen potstickers became a bit of a savior in my house in the pre-pandemic vaccine era, when every trip to the supermarket felt like running for supplies during a zombie apocalypse.
Everyone has a different relationship when it comes to food, including something as mundane and traditional as the dumpling.
We bought frozen potstickers in bags of a hundred from a wholesale store called Northern Dumpling Co. in our Scarborough neighborhood. For the many days in those first few months when I could barely get out of bed, let alone cook a meal from scratch, the dumplings fueled me to carry on another day.
Similarly, in the spring of 2022, church basements and restaurants across Canada produced varenyky by the thousands to raise relief funds for Ukrainian refugees. Diners wanting to show their support ordered the dumplings by the dozens and became more interested in learning more about Ukraine’s response to pierogi.
What I’m trying to say is that everyone has a different relationship when it comes to food, including something as mundane and traditional as the dumpling. As people move on, generational attitudes and values change, ingredients and techniques adapt or evolve, and as technology changes the way we cook, the role food plays in our lives changes. also.
It is impossible for a dish to remain static, like a centerpiece in a museum, if the people who cook and eat it are not static. Therefore, there will never be a definitive guide to meatballs, whether in map or anthology form, because our relationship to food keeps changing. Instead, think of this volume as a snapshot of how our relationship with dumplings is holding up right now, as told by people right now.
Who knows? Maybe five years from now, if you ask me what my relationship is with dumplings, I can say it’s one of my quick weeknight meals. I might add masala spices because an Indian restaurant owner gave me a few jars of his dad’s mixes and bragged that they could be used in anything. Or I’ll add finely chopped mint to the garnish as a nod to Vietnamese restaurants I always turn to for takeout – and as a way to use local ingredients – because I have a serious problem with overgrown mint in my yard.
Extract of What are we talking about when we talk about dumplings, edited by John Lorinc. Copyright © 2022. Available from Coach House Books.