Years ago I traveled with my boyfriend at the time to Thailand – via China. I think we did this on purpose, in order to see more countries on our trip. Neither of us had ever been to China. I’d read books that took place in China like Wild Swans and watched movies like Raise the Red Lantern. But nothing prepared me for how totally Other it felt. We walked into a state-run camera store where no one spoke English and where no one tried to help us either. All I wanted was a lens cap. I’m pretty sure we could have used hand signals to get through it. The whole place seemed inaccessible to us, closed off behind some invisible border. That is, until we sat down to eat.
The first of only two meals that we managed to squeeze into our 48-hour experience was in a small dumpling house. We looked around at the crowded communal tables and pointed, as if to say, “We’ll have what they’re having.” But this didn’t seem to go over well. Eventually, someone at a nearby table admitted to speaking a little (a very little) English and directed our gaze to the chalkboard near the door. There were a lot of different dumplings.
We explained that we would eat anything, if he would just take the liberty of ordering us the same thing he got. Each dumpling that arrived came filled with surprises – one with just leeks. One with pork and chives. One with beef. One with egg. We used a trio of sauces as the gentleman instructed us, and combined soy sauce with rice vinegar and sesame oil, adding a little chili paste as well.
A flame for dumplings
I kept that memory alive the rest of the time I lived in Sweden. At every Chinese restaurant, I would order dumplings. And every time, they would be the same ones, probably purchased frozen in bulk. Whenever I was back in New York, I would try to find a place that would live up to my memory, and eventually found a few good places.
But the best solution was to make my own. Off and on for several years I would hold Chinese New Year Parties. We’d light red lanterns, scrawl Chinese symbols in black tempura on big sheets of white paper to hang on the walls, and I would make a ton of dumplings. I bought the wrappers (one time I made them) and filled them with various mixtures.
This New Year’s, I made a Meyer Lemon, Chicken and Black Pepper one that became the hit of the party. It combined a Meyer Lemon and Black Pepper Marmalade I had made with roasted chicken. For the vegetarians, I toasted walnuts and roasted water chestnuts, pulsed those in the food processor and then added the marmalade to mimic the chicken version.
I made a sour plum and bacon dumpling and a beef and kimchi dumpling. I also made bao (steamed pork buns) and fortune cookies.
Like in prior years, I instructed my guests to wear red. We ate, talked, drank sake and Singapore Slings and rang in the year of the snake as though we we’d been celebrating the Zodiac calendar all our lives.
Meyer Lemon & Cracked Pepper Marmalade
Chop up three whole Meyer Lemons, skins and all, and put in a pot with a bunch of sugar and a little water. Simmer, taste for sweetness. Add cracked pepper. Reduce. In a separate bowl, combine one packet gelatin with a few tablespoons water. Let bloom. Boil about a fourth cup water and whisk that into the bloomed gelatin. When that mixture has a good (non-lumpy) consistency, add it to the now greatly reduced Meyer Lemon mixture. Let cool. Put in a container and store in the fridge… Or add it to pulsed roast chicken and stuff into dumplings.