an article by Olivia Stark
Dear Asian Youth,
We all have foods that tie us to our cultures through memory, communication, and belonging. Maybe it’s the congee you eat after a holiday, or the lychee jellies your grandma used to buy from the Asian supermarket. Whatever that special memory is for you, food allows us to communicate with our family and connect to our cultures in unique ways. For me, this is my Auntie Min’s Christmas potstickers. For as long as I can remember, my family has eaten these for every special occasion that we get to see Auntie Min, which usually happens to be Christmas. These dumplings serve not only as a yummy annual treat for my family, but also as a ritual of communication and bonding that bridges gaps between different family members, whether those gaps be created by time, distance, generation, or language barriers.
For my family, potstickers are a Christmas food, but we eat them on other special occasions as well. My Auntie Min works in a garment factory in San Diego where there are very strict rules about days off. She usually does not have any days off except for major holidays, such as Christmas. No one in the family knows how to make potstickers without Auntie Min’s help and expertise, so we all must wait until she is available to visit us on Christmas. Sometimes we eat potstickers on other holidays as well. This past year, Auntie Min’s boss was mad that she had used too many sick days throughout the year and forced her to make up for it by working on Christmas Eve. This meant she would not have time to come to our home in Los Angeles for Christmas to make the dumplings, so she planned in advance to come for Thanksgiving instead. Some years it is Christmas, some it is Thanksgiving, and some it is Lunar New Year. To my family, the reason for celebration serves merely as an excuse to all spend time together and most importantly, to eat dumplings.
We make these potstickers at my house in Los Angeles, but Auntie Min brings all the ingredients with her from San Diego. While the dumpling skins come from the Asian supermarket, no one besides Auntie Min is quite sure what specifically goes into the filling of these dumplings. Unfortunately, Auntie Min does not speak English and cannot tell us the ingredients. However, when we ask her bilingual husband, my Uncle Hoy, he says the filling is always made from the ground pork mixed with many different vegetables Auntie Min grows in her garden, including cabbage, chives, and water chestnuts. It is different each year, depending on what she was able to grow in her garden, and therefore each dumpling is uniquely delicious and never quite the same as the previous year.
In preparing the potstickers, Auntie Min sets up a large bowl of filling with many teaspoons, plus an open stack of dumpling skins. She then sets both onto the table along with a small bowl of water. When she is ready to begin assembling the dumplings, she informs Uncle Hoy, who calls out for everyone to gather in the kitchen. From here, my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, sister, and I all come and assemble the dumplings. We take a skin, dab the edge of it with water using our fingers, then scoop a heaping teaspoon of filling, which Auntie Min must approve with a gentle nod indicating if it is too much or too little. Then we fold the dumpling into a sort of crescent shape and carefully create folds to bring together the edges by tucking each fold under the last. We repeat this until we have hundreds of dumplings. Lastly, Uncle Hoy cooks all the dumplings by frying them in oil and then steaming them for a bit afterward to create the perfect balance of crispiness and softness.
A perfect potsticker will have even folds all across the top, but no one in my family is skilled enough to achieve this except for Auntie Min. My sister and cousin’s dumplings are usually so poorly assembled that they fall apart once Uncle Hoy tries to cook them on the frying pan. Everyone starts grabbing the dumplings the minute Uncle Hoy scoops them off the frying pan and onto a platter. They’re so hot that we often burn our fingers and tongues, but no one is patient enough to resist the smell of fresh dumplings off the pan. No one is first or last to be served. It is a free for all, with lots of shoving and grabbing for the best of the dumplings. Auntie Min, however, never eats the dumplings that Uncle Hoy places on the platter until everyone else has eaten and is full. Auntie Min eats the dumplings that my sister and cousin made that have fallen apart in the pan before Uncle Hoy has a chance to add them to the platter. They are too imperfect to serve, but she does not want them to go to waste.
Each potsticker is absolutely delicious, but for my family, these potstickers serve as much more than just a delicious mouthful—they also serve as a form of familial connection. Auntie Min does not speak any English, and my sister, cousin, and I do not speak any Cantonese. It is difficult to find ways to form close relationships with family members when both distance and a language barrier stand in the way. However, it has always been very important to Auntie Min to be close to the family, especially the children. So, she figured out a way to spend quality time with us that does not require verbal communication, but instead requires helpful hands, a willingness to learn, and a big appetite.
Although I have never been able to verbally communicate with Auntie Min, I know her well because of our potsticker making sessions. I know that she has a sense of humor, as she does not hesitate to point and laugh at me or other family members when we make an especially ugly dumpling. I know that she has a saintly amount of patience, as she began teaching me and my sister how to make dumplings since we were very young and difficult children. I know that she is a perfectionist, by the way she never lets an imperfect dumpling onto the platter to be served to the whole family, but I also know how frugal and resourceful she is as she always eats our imperfect dumplings to never let them go to waste. Lastly, I know how loyal and dedicated she is to our family because as long as I can remember, she has never missed a year visiting us and making potstickers, even if she could not make it for Christmas.
Every family has special foods that they get to eat only on certain occasions. Sometimes it is something decadent, delicious, and expensive, like a turkey or lobster. However, it may also be any ordinary food so long as it carries meaning to that family. For my family, potstickers symbolize the reunification of family after a year spent apart. They also symbolize the dedication we all have to making time for each other throughout our busy lives. They fill our hungry bellies, but they also nurture our bonds, strengthen our family ties, and introduce us to sides of our family members. While potstickers are a fairly ordinary Chinese food and my family has the option of ordering potstickers from any Chinese restaurant whenever we want, we never do. Restaurant potstickers never come with quite the same sentimental value as the ones we make ourselves with Auntie Min, not to mention they lack the fresh garden vegetables that make her potstickers truly extraordinary. To us, potstickers are reserved for very special occasions, and this is because while they are a delicious snack, they also hold much more meaning in our family. So whatever that special food is for your family, the next time you eat it, take a moment and pause to think about its significance. Asian foods are not only delicious, they are sacred rituals that bond families together. They are rituals that we can continue to pass down and take comfort in knowing that our cultures will never be erased.
- Olivia Stark