Half-and-Half: Where past and present intersect inside a Dumpling
A bao — pronounced like the bow of a boat — is a bun- plump, soft, and slightly sweet. Baos can be white and billowy like clouds. They also arrive on your saucer golden brown and round, catching the light coming off passing dimsum carts and dining room chandeliers. The baos I grew up with came in two varieties: barbeque pork (char-siu) and sweet red bean filling. Growing up, my Por Por- my mom’s mom- would bring home goodies from her sojourns to Chinatown. Wearing bright-toned clothes and a knit hat, she’d say Ling Song, lai hek, roughly, “Abé, come eat, look what I brought you.” Baos weren’t my favorite; that honor went to Cheng Fun, a thick and slippery sleeping bag of dough filled with meat or shrimp; nevertheless, baos along with an odd-ball family gave me warmth, sweet and savory, that brought me to a place of wonder at how food could bring such unique delight.
My Por Por’s generous, rising, laugh and dedication to feeding me Chinese food formed the background melody of my youth. Her rich smelling home, where I stayed with my mom and uncle, stood in contrast to my dad’s stark white walls and empty fridge usually containing little more than sardines, sour cream, and always mayonnaise. I can see him now, with lanky arms and bony fingers guiding the white stuff over whole-wheat bread to make a cheese sandwich. And there was my mom, whose steady tenor and effortless joy held us all together and comforted me when I most needed relief from my own tired mind. As an adult living close to lufse but apart from dimsum and my kin, I seek the comfort of foods that bring back these savory, sweet, and sour memories.
Eating as an adult, I feel my way around, looking for residues of the past. I mean like, when you’re young, being together in community is its own snug cocoon of food, language, and relationships. In the center, there was always a generous balance of the five elements: oily, saucy, fresh, chewy, and slurp! Though I’m fortunate to have my ma a few states and a phone call away, she isn’t there to use her broken Chinese or remind me what to call my second uncle. My Por Por isn’t there to ask if I’ve had enough, nei ookee ma? And I wonder if I’ll be able to pass on the traditions and foods, given that I’ll never return to my old community to re-absorb what used to be. And of course, we didn’t keep recipes.
I was seeking a good meal on a solitary day, and my wandering took me past an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church, with congregants strolling out of the church in white flowing linen. Cars jam-packed streets like a collapsed line of dominoes, and nobody was in a rush to get anywhere: ahhh, I said, this is community. I had landed on Minnehaha Ave — a thoroughfare extending from Franklin Ave. to Minnehaha Falls, stringing together industrial areas, schools, small businesses, and a nature reserve/park. Nestled between a tattoo parlor, an antique shop, and an escape room sat a “Dumpling.” I had been curious since passing by the joint a couple times, curious if this spot could conjure the savory memories of old, or if it would simply be hip and new age, and would they have more than just dumplings? On its website a description states that Dumpling is “A next generation Asian Restaurant. Specializing in Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian comfort food made with fresh, thoughtful ingredients.” What is it about food that makes it next generation, I wondered. Who were the chefs? And how would tradition inform this cuisine, if at all? Thankfully, I walked into this joint with my family to keep me grounded.
Uncle Billy wore his thick-framed Dali Lama glasses; he sported a white T with a tech logo he picked up at a software conference. Billy was always seeking a bargain, his signature catch phrase being “Cahn’t beat that!” Por Por wore a bright orange sweater covering a pink blouse and a knit purple hat; her jade hoop bracelet dangled on her wrist- a reminder of her Chineseness that she always had on her person. And my cousin Bruce was in all black with metal studs and a big old fro that required little maintenance. Various punk slogans emblazoned his jacket. Never has a “Fuck Nazis” patch worn by an Asian American been more relevant. We might as well have walked into the set of Beat It. The setting was mid-60’s, Miami retro. With leather seating and pink walls, I expected the dumplings to be brought in by a trio of goonies snapping their fingers in unison a la Kung Fu Hustle. It was a mix of old and new: across from a green-haired troll, sat the infamous golden cat who waves her left paw, silently saying look deep into my plastic black eyelashes for good luck.
On our left, sat a white couple who smiled at us courteously and to our right sat a brown family who was busy eating and chatting. My aunt Susan who has a habit of talking before reflecting said shrilly, “What is this place!?” Billy retorted, “Quiet Susan!” “Don’t tell me to be quiet, you mono!” she scolded back. Billy let out an “Eeeiyaaa!!” in exasperation. They were always going back and forth, Billy stressed due to money woes and a sense of exhaustion from having a wife with limited social-emotional development who generally preferred to watch soaps rather than go out, and Susan on edge from perpetually exposed to yelling as a primary form of communication. I always found my uncles’ family’s dysfunction somewhat comical and endearing, whereas my own dad’s manic-depressant mood swings generally left me feeling uncertain and powerless. “Don’t pay him no mind, he’s just stubborn,” would tell me. If you only knew, I thought.
I poured everybody tea to calm the mood. Well, technically, I actually filled everybody’s porcelain cups with hot water as fragile tea-filled bags floated then sank. Not as satisfying as the round, nurturing teapots found in Chinatown, which hold the treasure of freshly-steeped leaves, which spill out into your cup like kids coming down a water slide. Looking back at my mug with its lifeless, docile teabag, my family suddenly faded, and around me only the restaurant surroundings remained. Sufjan Stephens’ “Come on Feel the Illinoise” created a mellow, wistful, and definitively Midwest vibe reminding me that I wasn’t in Boston anymore. What was I doing eating out alone? Was I foolish to think I could somehow stay connected to my past?
My mom’s skeptical raised eyebrows and furrowed brow returned me to the Young clan. “I don’t know, sage in a dumpling,” my ma commented pointing to the free-spirited, pan-fried goodies filled with squash- an Asian spin on fall comfort food- “I guess it could be ok,” she said in an innocent tone. This was the same reaction I got when first started teaching myself to cook and shared my “innovative” ideas over the phone with excess exuberance. To my own credit, over time my hands have gotten more adept in servicing my tastebuds’ demands.
Where’s the “Lobster?” Susan asked.
“Susan, there weren’t no fish tanks walking in here, huhhh” Billy chided.
Despite being part a lower-income family that Billy supplemented by collecting cans and scrap metal, Susan grew up around wealth. And despite her social and intellectual limitations, she knew what foods celebrated prestige and abundance. Billy, on the other hand, was forever frugal and didn’t like to fret over subtleties. Being upwardly mobile and moving to a wealthier town in his youth, my dad always found my uncles’ family less cultured. I couldn’t care less if my uncle burped out loud, and I appreciated the free mint-condition furniture he used to find in the garbage, though his hoarding led to a hazardous basement you couldn’t move in. I always thought that my dad was closer to my uncle than he’d like to admit, being a man who enjoyed walking among salt-of-the-earth types. And he also had a proclivity of collecting goods; the only difference being that he’d pay for his junk- the rooms full of old printers and lawnmowers he thought would accrue in value.
My dad wanted to ensure that I learn an instrument. “I know you don’t like it now, but playing the piano is something you can take with you throughout your whole life. It’ll help you find a girl, too,” my dad informed my 7-year old self. Looking back, I imagined my family as the music of my world- their personalities staccato acid drops dribbling onto the sheet, composing a raucous symphony that consistently filled a void within me. My aunt Susan would always be a blunt sharp note, the screech on the road that signaled a sudden shift in direction. Her husband Billy boy Nundoi, an increasingly frustrated conductor, who despite his best attempts with the baton could never get everything in line. Nobody on my mom’s side actually played an instrument. At least, that’s what I remembered before this lunch.
Asked the same question he got at every family meal: if he had given thought to purchasing a bride from China, my uncle Bobby pulled out a cello and guided the bow across the strings mournfully, his head cocked down at the table. A deep moan emanated from the mahogany instrument. All eyes were on him, registering tinges of agony in recluse, as forks hit plates and tears mixed with oolong. We all knew Bobby suffered, going through gambling addiction and bankruptcy, and frequently transfixed in front of the tv or held up in his room, but we had never heard the sound of his dolor. He finished the performance with a sip of Coke and his signature Ninja Turtle, nothing but teeth, F.O.B. smile. He released an Ahhhhhh, his signature- a saccharine sound of pleasure he let out as fizz tickled his throat and the cold can graced his lips. Before things could get too somber, the food came. As we started to dig in, my ma and my Por Por giggled at the new-fangled foods, her laugh gracing us like fresh raindrops sweetened with orange citrus.
I had settled on a bowl of ramen — an oddity given that most of our meals together were always communal with shared dishes in the middle. But I’ve found the Japanese adaptation of the Chinese lo-mein noodle to be a culinary gift to the world, offering a slurp like none other. The broth was robust, and the variety of accouterment laid over the noodles was prepared with care- the scallions minced into delicate ribbons, the pickled ginger glowed an entrancing pink, and the egg was poached to perfection. Por Por asked me hoo sek ma? Is it good? “Hoo aaa,” I said, offering her a spoonful of noodles thickened with the warm yolk.
But in reality, I was less focused on the food than on the family to our right; dad was getting into a small disagreement with his baby girl. He desperately wanted his daughter to speak Spanish. When she would answer his “¿Cómo esta el pollo?” in English, he and mom would say, “No entiendo,” we can’t understand you. While I might’ve felt inadequate and timid in her shoes as I often do while speaking Chinese, she swiftly moved the conversation to a philosophical inquiry about horses. “But horses don’t speak in Spanish!” she insisted. “Well how do you know,” asked Dad with a hint of haughtiness. “Because horses speak, neigggghh-” she retorted, snorting out loud. Her freedom and playfulness made me grin, and reminded me that you can be flexible in any context. I wanted to ask the dad “Pero cómo se dice “dumpling,” a food that seems unlimited by language or boundaries.
Still, I wondered about my grandmother’s mother tongue, Toisan. Yes, I could tell her, “Ho aaa” yes, the soup is damn good! But, I grew up not knowing more than a few phrases of the rising, falling, expression-rich language. Success in the world whether it be academic or in sports, seemed more important at the time than holding onto something from the past. It’s a sore spot I usually nurse by making stir-fried Chinese greens with fermented black bean sauce. Ironically I always loved the oldies, whether it be listening to Motown or watching shows like I Love Lucy with my grandma before bedtime. I think I’ll always have an old soul wherever I go, and though I may not have all the words, I have to trust that the love exchanged within them will carry me forward.
Before I could get too wrapped up in this meditation like sticky rice in a bamboo leaf, a glimpse of something wildly peculiar caught my eye. I saw the fried chicken, I saw the hands guiding the chicken to its destination, but instead of a bread roll… there was, gulp… a bao. “What the hell?” I thought. A bao sandwhich in a Chinese joint? No, you can’t do that. A bao has its own sweet profile and need not be in close proximity to anything fried or having to do with poultry! But there it was, clenching that filet oddly like gym shorts over a hen. My whole family turned to look at it, then at me. Half hong yen (Chinese), half lo fan (white), what is it? My uncle dropped a resounding drum roll and rang a symbol as suspense filled the air.
I couldn’t help but laugh, and let out a James Brown-like, yaaaaooooo! Unlike the Spanglish conversation happening in earshot, or my family reunion, this sandwich had definitively broken away from its mother culture. It took something southern — fried chicken — and something Chinese- the bao and it had become distinctly American. This is what I think, Chef James Munson meant by comfort food; I just couldn’t quite call it quite Asian or a successful amalgamation. Yes, I know, since when has Chinese food in America ever been Chinese. Most people in China haven’t heard of this “General Tso,” and are shocked to find the chicken coated in intensely sweet orange sauce alongside Italian broccoli and the occasional orange slice. But I would argue that its roots are still in China, brought by cooks who traversed mountains and seas and, uh, racism, to serve up some irresistible alchemy. Other creations still strike me as placeless and taboo, like the cream cheese wonton, which in my book breaks kosher laws about where cream cheese does and doesn’t belong (keep it at the Fare). To modify a classic, such as the bao, which is both elegant and simple, will take more gusto.
“What the…” my cousin Tanya let out as her sister, Jenny lifted a trumpet to her lips and cut a jazz rift that reverberated off the walls and jangled her hoop earrings. Billy let out a raucous laugh and didn’t stop until my aunt Susan wacked him and made him cough. Por Por balked at the sandwich and concluded that her fried chicken was tastier; she didn’t say it, but we all knew. Alongside the novelty, I reflected that I had always stood somewhere between my Chinese family and my dad, a white Jew with a reputation for causing trouble and acting out independent of tradition. He did enjoy showing off his Cantonese, shouting “Bak fan (fried rice)” to the Chinese he’d encounter, and his loud personality could make me squirm. Today, he wore a tweed sports jacket and a pair of hospital pants- preferring anything loose and blue anything that could potentially cut off his circulation. My dad rarely came out to eat with us but was in the mood for bak fan and Chianti. He lit up a cigarette after the meal (no, he wasn’t aloud to) and scatted to nobody in particular- a mix of Fiddler on The Roof and jazz- dy dy dy dee dyy, if I were a rich man, boo bee baa be doo, smiling with red-stained teeth. In spite of his quirks and ability to cause me embarrassment at the drop of a chopstick, today he was just family- part of the Young clan.
Sitting between two sides of the family, between past and present, I wondered what I had to carry forth. I felt like the girl who spoke horse- owning the reality of her unique identity while simultaneously trying stay true to her family ties, or maybe that bao still looking for it’s original char siu center. Above the entrance of Jiaozi hung two pictures: the first, a landscape print of the infamous Angkor Wat and adjacent to that, a married Cambodian couple- presumably the folks of co-owner Bunbob Chhun. There was a lightly maintained altar, an ode to tradition in a setting of modernity and fusion and Norwegian culture. I pondered if in addition to fusion and trendy, might there be room for more pungent, earthy and hot Cambodian influences on the menu? The flavors of old come out in unexpected and soulful ways if we let them.
With the check laid gently onto the table my stepdad Jake, an Irishman who came from living in a chicken coop to doing accounting at AT&T, quickly reached for it but not before my uncle slid in underneath his outstretched hand to scoop it up. They went back and forth over who would pay, the classic after dinner ritual. “Don’t be silly, it’s our treat!” “No, it’s our treat!” As the jockeying grew louder my cousin Tanya’s embarrassment quickly grew, tired of the banal, unnecessary arguing. She put her head down, and gathering all her sentiments, thocked out a symphony of thrill and despair on the xylophone she had pulled off the wall, as I marveled with wide eyes. “Baaaa (dad)!” Tanya reprimanded. “Jake!” I added. After watching this ping-pong match of civility fueled by humility and tradition go on for too long, Por Por pulled out her knit purse and $200 cash. Though my mom tried to push it back, the matter was settled. Mm gan nee slun- it’s out of your hands, she said giving us all root beer barrel hard candies. I cradled one, sweetly tracing the path of our home and the imprints our food-ways have traced firmly into our collective bowl from there to here. I put the candy in my pocket, knowing it was my responsibility to keep my family and our stories near wherever I would go.
I wanted to include this meditation on circles and mom’s advice by Fun Fun Cheng. It speaks to a sentiment of returning that’s inseparable from growing and reflection. With that, Circles: I often feel as well as I’ve worn this piece of jade ever since I was a small child. It is a circle with a hole in the middle. My mother told me that if I wore this circle over my heart, all things bad would leave my heart through the hole in the middle. Yet, I don’t wear it over my heart, but rather inches above. I think of what my mother said, and I think I can squeak by with a few inches less. I don’t follow my mother’s directions to the “T” but only in spirit.
Circles don’t have to be totally round. I used to think of them only as something smooth and slick. Perhaps with experience, I have steadily let go of perfect roundness and settled for the hint of roundness. That’s enough to pass. Life is too short for perfection. Is it even possible? The hint of perfection is enough.
Coming back full circle: I see that pattern often with irony. The places, people, things that we thought we had left behind — sometimes on purpose — sometimes not we end up coming back to again as if feat is leading us and laughing at our folly that we have any real say of how things go. Round and round we go. How did I get back here? I though I’d left for good.
 More on the history of the infamous dish and the inception and evolution of Chinese-American food can be found in Jennifer 8. Lee’s, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and its accompanying Netflix documentary, The Search for General Tso.