Culture is something so incredibly intense that unless you’ve grown up in a certain culture, you will never be able to wrap your mind around it.
I started thinking more deeply about my own Chinese culture these few days; when I first made a promise to explore my Asian heritage, the next thing that birthed forth was a burning desire to re-read bestselling author Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
I can barely remember when I’d first read this book, which was published in 1987, just two years after I was born, but what I know now is that books should always be read at least twice, at very different phases of your life.
Sometime in my early teenage years, I was given The Joy Luck Club to read as part of English literature homework. Back then, all I paid attention to was the fact that it was about an occasional social gathering among several Chinese families who had migrated to the United States, during which they’d dedicate their time eating Chinese delicacies and playing endless rounds of Mahjong.
I also remembered how the daughters of these families – American-born Chinese daughters who spoke different languages from their parents and grew up with completely distinct mindsets – felt a huge cultural gap as they struggled to retain their Chinese roots in the midst of attaining their own identity in the West, where they had been born.
When I picked up the book again a few days ago, I read it with similar but different eyes.
I noticed how important food was in Chinese culture; whose abundance was synonymous with the appearance of generosity and overflowing prosperity and ultimately the deeply-entrenched need to keep up with expectations of others.
I read over and over again how the women of the Joy Luck Club would take their roles of hostesses very seriously, whenever it was their turn to host the party, they would bring out bowls of deliciously steaming hot wanton soup, boiled peanuts, roast chicken or duck, and baskets of mandarin oranges – each time was a feast for both the eyes and the stomach, and it reminded me of my own family, where it was always important for there to be more food than the guests could consume, because of the custom and importance of showing off the abundance a family had been blessed with.
I imagined being there with the ladies (and their men) at those weekly gatherings, as they sat at the square mahogany table to play yet another round of Mahjong, the game tiles clashing against each other as they were moved from one corner of the table to the other. I could hear in my mind how the woman told stories one after another, each tale more unbelievable than the one before. I imagined the smell of sweet brown boiled peanuts, freshly scooped from a pot of hot water, tender from the heat and breaking easily as you chew on them.
I envisioned the women leaning against the kitchen counter, paper-thin dumpling wrappers in one flour-stained palm, and cream-colored chopsticks in the other hand, deftly stuffing the wrappers with “chopstick-jabs of gingerly meat”, and then folding the wrappers around the meat to form gold-ingot shaped dumplings, all in quick un-meditated steps.
I then thought about how it was the same way with my Chinese family back in Singapore, especially with my grandmother, who for many years was the one in charge of preparing a feast for our reunion dinners during Chinese New Year. She’d spend days preparing for that night’s dinner; early morning purchases at the fresh market to get the best prawns and seafood; and then she’d spend afternoons hovering over the stove to stew meat until it becomes so tender it practically melts in your mouth.
For all I’ve known, food has been a currency of love, of pride and of communication in the Chinese culture.
When a person puts on weight, the older generations tend to take it as a sign of good fortune and happiness. Each social event sees visitors bearing gifts of more food – salted duck; stewed bamboo shoots; handmade meat rolls and all other kinds of delicious goodies.
My grandparents stuff me with food every time I visit them – “duo chi, eat more,” my grandma insists as she re-fills my bowl of soup for the second or third time, scooping yet another ladle of rice onto my plate. I tell her I’m about to explode but she doesn’t take no for an answer. Because I see them only once a year ever since I re-located to Argentina, they try to feed me an entire year’s worth of food in just one sitting, because it’s their way of telling me they love me.
And because of the deep degree to which food and Chinese culture are intertwined; it is almost impossible for me to better understand my culture without learning about its food.
For a long time, I stayed in my comfort zone, with fried rice being the limit of my Asian food repertoire. And finally, after a long time, I’ve eventually tried my hand at homemade Chinese pork dumplings.
I really wanted to do the short-cut method and use store-bought dumpling wrappers (which would also be thinner, more even, and look better), but on the very day that I set my heart to making dumplings, the Chinese store owner had forgotten to order them. So I had to hand-make my dumpling wrappers, which was hard work, but eventually did pay off.
The familiar smell and taste of “gingerly meat” tucked in homemade flour dumpling wrappers, dipped in soya sauce sprinkled with fresh chopped chives was enough to transport me back to Asia.
It made me feel like I’d traveled back to the continent that will always be home to me; and for temporary moment, it was as if I was there, part of The Joy Luck Club.
That’s the effect food has on me, and all of us I believe. The effect of taking us somewhere else locked up in our memories; this phenomenon, which takes place because of the mere aroma and taste, is why for us to understand and remember our culture, we must first explore the food which inevitably is so intricately tied to our culture.
CHINESE PORK DUMPLINGS (Makes 30 dumplings)
Adapted from Cooking Thumb and All Recipes
For the dumpling wrappers:
1) 3 cups all purpose flour + more for dusting
2) ¾ teaspoon of salt
3) Water, amount necessary
For the filling:
4) 300g of minced pork
5) 2 garlic cloves, minced
6) 2 tablespoons of finely chopped chives
7) 2 teaspoons of minced fresh ginger
8) 2 ¾ teaspoons of soya sauce
9) ¾ cups of vegetable oil for frying
10) 3 cups of water, or more as needed
For the sauce:
11) ¼ cup of light soya sauce
12) 2 teaspoons of finely chopped chives
1) Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Add water in small amounts and knead until you get a smooth and moldable dough. Cover dough with a damp cloth and let it rest for about 30 minutes.
2) While dough rests, mince the garlic, chives and ginger, and mix with minced pork and soya sauce. Let the minced meat marinate with the rest of the ingredients for at least 20 minutes.
3) After dough has rested, divide it equally into 30 portions and shape each portion into a small ball by rolling it between both of your palms
4) Taking one dough ball at a time, dip it into flour, and on a smooth, floured surface, flatten the ball into a circle slightly bigger than the base of a coffee mug. Repeat with other balls of dough.
5) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper
6) Place a dumpling wrapper in a floured, slightly cupped hand, and scoop one teaspoon of minced pork filling in the center of the wrapper
7) Dip the fingers of your other hand in water, and moisten the inner edges of the dumpling wrapper with water. Fold the dumpling wrapper into half, and press the edges of both halves together, making sure to seal them well
8) Place filled dumplings onto the parchment paper-lined baking sheet, making sure they do not touch each other
9) Lightly heat up about 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Once oil has been heated up, spread about 6 to 8 dumplings in the saucepan and let them cook until their bottoms are golden brown (about 3-4 minutes)
10) Once the bottoms of the dumplings are golden brown, Pour in about ¾ to 1 cup of water, cover the saucepan until all water has evaporated, and dumplings are tender and pork is cooked (about 5 minutes). Repeat with remaining dumplings – should take about 4 rounds of cooking.
11) Serve hot with soya sauce mixture for dipping
Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Add water in small amounts and knead until you get a smooth and moldable dough. Cover dough with a damp cloth and let it rest for about 30 minutes:
Mix ingredients for filling together and let the minced meat marinate with the rest of the ingredients for at least 20 minutes:
After dough has rested, divide it equally into 30 portions and shape each portion into a small ball by rolling it between both of your palms. Taking one dough ball at a time, dip it into flour, and on a smooth, floured surface, flatten the ball into a circle slightly bigger than the base of a coffee mug. Repeat with other balls of dough. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place a dumpling wrapper in a floured, slightly cupped hand, and scoop one teaspoon of minced pork filling in the center of the wrapper:
Dip the fingers of your other hand in water, and moisten the inner edges of the dumpling wrapper with water. Fold the dumpling wrapper into half, and press the edges of both halves together, making sure to seal them well. Place filled dumplings onto the parchment paper-lined baking sheet, making sure they do not touch each other:
Lightly heat up about 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Once oil has been heated up, spread about 6 to 8 dumplings in the saucepan and let them cook until their bottoms are golden brown (about 3-4 minutes). Once the bottoms of the dumplings are golden brown, Pour in about ¾ to 1 cup of water, cover the saucepan until all water has evaporated, and dumplings are tender and pork is cooked (about 5 minutes). Repeat with remaining dumplings – should take about 4 rounds of cooking:
Serve hot with soya sauce mixture for dipping:
So great to meet you! I loved reading about your family….. My mom is the same way too! She’s always telling me to eat more 🙂
felicia | Dish by Dish says
Hi jaden! such a nice surprise to have you drop by! I know, chinese families are all similar in that aspect – eat more eat more! so after every trip back to Asia I come back with a few kilos more!
Jess @ On Sugar Mountain says
It’s so funny how some ideas transcend culture as well: my italian grandmother does that exact same thing your grandmother does – feeds me til I’m about to explode and then continues to do so until I fall into a food coma! She’s always been like that and I believe the same idea holds true: food is love, and also a sign of good fortune that you can feed your family what is good for them both physicially and emotionally. 🙂 Love this post – and those dumplings! I’ll take a few dozen please. 😉
felicia | Dish by Dish says
Yes Jess! So lovely to hear about your Italian grandma and to know that my Chinese grandma does exactly the same. Food bonds people and really is a way of showing love. I never quite understood why my grandparents love stuffing us with food, but now I do! And I’m thankful for it! sending you virtual dumplings & plenty of love! 😉
Cheng Sai Fong says
Thanks for sharing what you read in the book “The Joy Luck Club”. This gave me a glimpse of the stories written in the book that I have not read.
The stories you share and the way you introduce your receipes in your posts to your readers are just so personal and sincere that never fails to draw me to continue reading till the very end and still wanting for more…. 🙂
Continue to write and share more…
Love you darling 🙂
felicia | Dish by Dish says
thanks mummy for always reading and always being so encouraging 🙂 I’m glad my writing evokes such feelings when you read! love u too!
Grace lim says
That why Hong Kongers spend so long hour in restaurant – charting over food!
felicia | Dish by Dish says
Hello! Haha, yes long hours queuing for food – and memories of Uncle Eric & Aunt Ad hunting for the peidan zok (century egg porridge) come to mind!!