Assembly Line

Ruiyang Zhao

For a traditional Chinese family, New Year is a gathering on a snowy winter day. It is taping red “Fu” letters on every door and window of the house while watching the Spring Festival Gala. It is also staying up late, trying to say “Happy New Year” to everyone as the clock turns to 12 a.m. However, for me, New Year means a plate of steaming dumplings that have just come out of their hot water bath. I can inhale dozens of them within minutes.

Picking a type of stuffing for the New Year dumplings always comes with a big debate. Mom loves celery and pork stuffing because of the crunchiness. My uncle, according to himself, is not a big fan of the “abundance of cellulose” in celery. He prefers Chinese cabbage with pork since the stuffing must balance the refreshing flavor of vegetables and the savory taste of meat. My mushroom-enthusiast cousin always calls for mushroom and pork stuffing. My favorite is the Sanxian stuffing made of pork, shrimp, and chives. The word “Sanxian” means “triple umami” in Mandarin. It was believed that pork, shrimp, and chives were the savoriest ingredients to cook with. Since they come to such a perfect balance when mixed, the Sanxian mix eventually became one of the most well-known traditional stuffings for dumplings. If you can ignore the horrible smell of your mouth after eating it, it is indeed the tastiest stuffing. I still vividly recall the New Year of 2011, when my family selected Sanxian stuffing, and I proudly named myself “The Most Beloved Person of the Year” because I would taste dumplings with my favorite stuffing as my first meal of the year.

During dumpling making, my family members simultaneously form an assembly line with clear specializations. The kitchen turns into a workshop with my family members scattered at each corner. Over by the stove is my aunt, who makes the stuffing. She stirs ground pork in one direction and slowly adds cups of water to ensure the juiciness of the dumplings’ interior. Then she adds chives and shrimp along with chopped scallion, ginger, salt, soy sauce, cooking wine, and sesame oil. The filling comes out runny, barely firm enough to stay in shape when I take a scoop of it. Once cooked, it will be perfectly juicy and tender. My aunt has done this every year, and she is so experienced that she knows just by the smell whether the filling needs more soy sauce or salt.

Right next to her stands my uncle, who kneads the dough. He is a little stubborn in terms of dough-making, claiming that hand-kneaded doughs taste far better than the ones kneaded by stand mixers. Perhaps because he is the oldest among his siblings, or because he just seems to enjoy dough-kneading so much, nobody in my family ever tries to refute his claim. He has happily held the job of dough-kneader for as long as I can remember. To make the dough, he stirs iced water, added slowly, into a large bowl of all-purpose flour. At the beginning, the dough is hard and rough on the surface. He needs to first cover the dough and then let it sit for two hours. Once the dough has rested, he kneads it for about 20 to 30 minutes until the dough is smooth. He then hands it to my dad, who rolls out the wrappers, and my uncle starts to prepare another batch of dough.

This process just seemed like busy work to me until I tried kneading the dough myself. The flour to water ratio is difficult to determine. Depending on the weather and the quality of the flour, different amounts of water need to be added. Too much water makes the dough too soft to work with, and it will stick to the board. Neither can I make it too dry because we still need to roll it into wrappers. My uncle eyeballs the amount of water, but I often need to add more flour to the dough because I tend to make it too soft to begin with, and then add water again when I realize it is too dry. I can get stuck in this cycle for so long that the final lump of dough ends up being twice as large as what I began with. Whenever I ask my uncle for the trick of making perfect dough, he gives me the fusty “growing up” talk:

“You will be better once you get older and have more experience with making dumplings.”

I do not really believe my uncle’s claim, but I am, inevitably, sent to another station because I am not yet “experienced” enough to be a reliable kneader.

I have always tried to avoid the wrapper-rolling station. Not because it was led by my dad, who sometimes fights me for a bite of ice cream, but because wrapper-rolling looks like the most boring and most challenging task. The prepared dough is first separated into four parts and shaped into long, thin cylinders about one inch in diameter; these are later cut into half-inch long pieces. Dad flours them, shapes them into small balls, and presses down to flatten them. He holds one side of a piece with his left hand and with his right rolls with a rolling pin halfway into the dough and back out. Then, he turns the dough slightly and repeats the rolling until he goes all the way around the edge of the dough. A wrapper will turn out perfectly circular. The center is thick enough to resist breaking once stuffed, and the edges are thinner so that you do not bite into a block of flour once the dumpling is folded. Rolling a wrapper takes Dad less than ten seconds—shorter than the time it takes for my mom to wrap a dumpling.

Mom is an expert at making dumplings. She places a scoop of stuffing onto the wrapper, folds it up, gives a quick squeeze to the edges, and a dumpling is made. The dumpling has a big blob of stuffing at its center and holds its shape once Mom places it on a tray. I can see the green of the chives and the pink-colored ground pork through the half-transparent wrapper. My cousin stands to the side and helps my mom. She uses a different folding method. First, she folds the wrapper and presses the center of the two edges together. Then, she folds up half of each side. Finally, she presses the rest of the edges against the main body of the dumpling. The folded dumplings have clearer wrinkles on the edges than the ones my mom makes, but they, too, look gorgeous and professional.

I envy my cousin, who can actually make dumplings, because I am as challenged as I can be at folding those little pieces of dough. Afraid of breaking the wrappers, I tend to insert small amounts of stuffing, and the dumplings turn out flat. Neither can my dumplings stand on their own. Next to the ones my mom makes, they indeed look like baby dumplings. When I put more stuffing inside, I press so hard on the edges that the stuffing comes out from the open sides. If I try to scoop out the excess, the oil from the stuffing greases the edges, making it impossible to stick two sides of the wrapper together. The softness of the wrapper also makes it more difficult to fold the edges. As I must hold the dumpling with my left hand, I can only use my right hand to pinch the edges together, and the folds turn out ugly—more uneven than Mediterranean terrace fields.

“Ruiyang, you should stop wrapping the dumplings,” says my mom after inspecting my work. “They will all end up broken in the pot when boiling, and we shall end up eating soup.”

“We don’t have enough wrappers to waste,” my cousin adds.

“Great!” says my dad. He is happy and casually hands me a rolling pin. “Come help me roll out the wrappers.”

This is how I end up getting assigned to roll the wrappers, and I remain in that position after finding myself surprisingly a wrapper-rolling prodigy. Rolling the wrappers is, indeed, difficult, but I am more talented at this work than wrapping up those delicate pieces. After first trying it out with 30 wrappers, I can roll the wrappers fast and precisely. My trick is to have a rhythm in my heart. It is a repetitive beat like “1, 2, 1, 2,” which keeps me aware of where the rolling pin is. At the count of 1, the rolling pin is at the center of the dough. I quickly roll it back out from the dough while, simultaneously, my left hand gently turns the dough at the count of 2. Then, I roll the pin back towards the center.

Dad is genuinely surprised by how good I am at wrapper-rolling, and I take great pride in officially earning a position in this fast-paced assembly line. From now on, I will volunteer to roll out the wrappers whenever my family decides to make dumplings. The back of my hand will always burn after rolling out hundreds of wrappers because of friction between my hand, the flour particles, and the rolling pin. However, the pain will be worth the effort. There is no better feeling than standing by the stove and waiting for my dumpling babes to come out.

There are two ways to boil dumplings. The first one is so simple and straightforward that anyone my age who eats dumplings knows it:

          • Bring a whole pot of water to boiling point.
          • Add the dumplings.
          • Stir the dumplings to prevent sticking.
          • Once the water boils, add a cup of cold water to the pot.
          • Wait till the water boils again and add the second cup of cold water.
          • Bring that to boiling point, and the dumplings are ready.

My aunt does this a second way—the old-fashioned way:

          • Bring a whole pot of water to boiling point.
          • Add the dumplings.
          • Stir the dumplings to prevent sticking.
          • Once the water boils, leave it boiling until all dumplings are inflated and float to the top.
          • Scoop one up and poke at it.

“Be careful not to get burnt, Auntie,” I yell.

“Don’t worry. I’ve done this many times. So have your grandma and great-grandma,” says my aunt with confidence.

Auntie never burns herself, and she knows the dumplings are ready as soon as she sees the “stomach” of the dumpling bouncing back right after the poking.

Plates of steaming hot dumplings go on to the table, and the voice of the Spring Festival Gala can still be heard from the TV in my grandma’s room. We gather around the table, waiting for the end of the New Year countdown to send our best wishes to each other. My go-to phrase is always “Gong Xi Fa Cai,” meaning “I wish you prosperity.” Soon, I, as the youngest child of our family, will receive red envelopes filled with cash, half of which will be spent on candies the following year. Grandma makes the call to taste the dumplings, and a dozen chopsticks will reach for them.

As soon as I bite into the wrapper, the juice that was stirred into the filling oozes out. The savory pork and soy sauce along with a little spiciness of chives tickles my palate, and I feel chunks of shrimp crunching. Mom’s homemade dipping sauce with garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar enhances the taste. No one speaks. Everyone is immersed in the world of food. Afterwards, my dad and uncle will start a competition over who ate the most dumplings—whoever that is, he or she will end up washing the dishes.

Years after my family moves to the United States, far from the rest of my extended family, I find myself craving a bite of that authentic dumpling of my childhood. However, I never find myself strong enough to knead the dough by hand. Neither can I succeed in determining if the dumplings are cooked by poking at them. It feels inefficient to make dumplings from scratch with our family of three, and we end up using store-brought wrappers. My wrapper-rolling skill goes neglected, and I somehow feel that the store-brought wrappers do not taste nearly as good as the homemade ones. The machine-rolled wrappers look perfect–precisely circular and evenly thin throughout, but they lack the chewy texture of the hand-rolled wrappers that exist in my memory. I find myself missing the assembly line, the old-fashioned ways to knead dough and boil dumplings, and the joy of the gathering with my family.