They say childhood memories can be the strongest memories.
The last time I made dumplings (jiaozi) from scratch was 20 years ago. Yet, when I began to make dumplings last week, I began to remember the scenes of our extended family and friends gathered around the large round dining table, surrounded by flour, dough, and general chatter.
Back in those days, we always made dumpling wrappers by hand. I didn’t even think we could buy wrappers. This was in the days before a supermarket (a proper Western-style supermarket) had opened up in our city, and there were still many, many, many bikes and barely any cars. Whatever we needed came from street vendors, little shops along the road, and the wet markets.
Dumplings were a group effort. Some made the filling – rich with the smell of garlic chives and rice wine, others kneaded the dough and cut it into small blobs. Then, a production line was formed: two or three people turned the blobs of dough into wrappers using those small rolling pins, and as soon as they were rolled out, another two or three people turned them into dumplings.
Soon, rows of neat dumplings would appear in the centre of the table. Plump, supple, prettily pleated into small crescent shapes.
Halfway through this production cycle, we would stop, boil some freshly made dumplings, and slurp them down with some soy and vinegar. Refreshed, we would return to the second half of our production line.
As children, we of course watched, chattered, played with dough, and generally got under the adults’ feet (literally!). After pestering our parents, we were sometimes given a small lump of dough, and a rolling pin, and were allowed to roll out wrappers. My first few attempts were, well, rustic looking to say the least. The blob of dough grew unexpected horns, tails, legs, and became a myriad of many-sided shapes – any shape except a circle.
When I tried to make dumplings, my childish greed always got the better of me. I over-filled the dumplings and the filling would escape between poorly sealed cracks.
The adults humoured us, and somehow fixed up those wrappers or dumplings.
Fast forward to Sydney.
I was a production line of one. But the chatter, noises, smells, and most of all the small, deft movements of the dumpling makers stayed with me while I made the 50-odd dumplings for our Chinese new year feast. And yes, I added garlic chives to the filling. This time, my wrappers had fewer horns, tails and legs. And the fillings stayed in the wrappers. I’ve joined the adults’ table, figuratively speaking.