By Jacqueline Church
A “taste of the heart” is just one of the translations for “dim sum,” but it’s one I favor. I find the description carries over to dumplings too, which are a major component of dim-sum and are featured at this time of Lunar New Year as a symbol of good luck.
The Chinese aren’t alone in their love for dumplings. The Polish have pierogies, South Americans eat empanadas. Koreans munch mandu, and Italians have ravioli and tortellini. Ever heard of Swabian Maultaschen? That stuffed noodle-style dumpling hails from Germany, as do Munich’s knödle. Indians have samosas. Kreplach are the dumplings in Jewish soups. There’s hardly a familiar cuisine that doesn’t have some well-known version of a dumpling.
My mother is Japanese and our dumplings are called gyōza. You may know them as pot-stickers. At home these tasty little pouches mean more than just luck. In a culture that doesn’t have ways to overtly communicate love, a favorite food will often convey the affection not easily expressed otherwise.
The first time I brought Caleb, my then-boyfriend, home to Maryland, Mom suggested we gather the family for blue crab, so we stopped at the fishmongers on the way home from the airport. As we sat down to lunch and Mom parceled out our plates, it was hard not to notice where her affection was focused. For her first born, (me); a crab cake. For my sister, the mother of her only grandchildren; a crab cake. For her youngest child, the only son; a crab cake. For the new boyfriend? A giant crab ball (think supersized crabcake) the size of a grapefruit! The “Crab Ball Incident” as it’s now known, was only the first inkling of her love for my now-husband.
On another early visit, Mom made her gyōza and was delighted to see how much Caleb enjoyed them. Once she learned that he adores dumplings, she was certain to have a batch ready to go upon his arrival. We don’t even have to ask now; the food-as-love theme plays out all on its own. If we’re coming to visit, there will be gyōza. I reap the benefits of course, enjoying them along side my husband. My siblings are not as lucky. Their portions usually get served to Caleb before they arrive. “I can make gyōza for them anytime. Eat, eat!”
Fumiko’s gyōza are delicious. They’ve become the bar against which all others (including mine) are measured. And all others fall short. Though mine are passable, “they’re not Fumiko’s,” Caleb laments. This is the silent love pact between my mother and my husband. She will always make gyōza for him and he will always love hers above all others.
And me? I couldn’t be happier.
Jacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.