Some friends of ours throw a Chinese dinner party every year. Everyone brings a dish: scallion pancakes, hot and sour soup, various stir-fries with chicken and tofu, Asian slaw, and braised bok choy. I always bring the dumplings—two kinds, pork and shiitake. I make the fillings from scratch and I also make the dough, rolling it out into little circles and then filling, folding, and crimping them into little surprise-filled purses. For the party, I pan-fry them so they're crispy on the bottoms and steamed on top. The rest I freeze for future dinners.
This year, I made 150 dumplings. As the hours passed, I found myself wondering why I spend so much time making them myself. I'm not Chinese, for one thing. Sure, I love dumplings, but I love chocolate even more and I don't spend hours hand-grinding cocoa beans to make my own. I buy my chocolate at the store like a normal person. That same store sells dumplings pre-made in the freezer section in six different flavors. I could bring those dumplings to the party instead and no one would be the wiser. But every year, I make my own. Why?
I had many hours of dumpling-making ahead of me to ponder this question. I'm lazy by nature and, frankly, it didn't make any sense. There had to be more to it. Something more than an oil-splattered clipping of a Taiwanese dumpling recipe I tore out of a Saveur 15 years ago. And then it hit me.
When I was in seventh grade, we moved for the fifth time to a town south of Boston where I met a quiet girl from Taiwan. We were both new to the school: she from halfway around the world, I from the town next door (though, from a social standpoint, it might as well have been halfway around the world given how welcoming middle schoolers are). She was my first friend there. For a long time, she was my only friend. She knew very little English, but I was hardly a chatterbox myself. We got by and she learned fast. Always quick with a smile, she was a dedicated student and an incredible piano player. (I'm tempted to call her by her first initial, I, except that would make for a very confusing first-person narrative.)
We remained good friends all through high school, running track together and trying to learn the high jump. Then, during our junior year, she invited me to spend two weeks with her family in Taiwan that summer. I was intrigued. I'd never been out of the country before, didn't know anything about passports or visas, but I did have thousands of dollars saved up in the bank from working in a sandwich shop for $5/hour every weekend for two years. I wanted to go, but it would require traveling halfway around the world alone on the return trip. I didn't expect my dad to go for it—but he did! Excited and nervous, I bought a round-trip ticket and prepared for what still qualifies as the longest flight of my life (23 hours from Boston to Detroit to Seoul to Taipei).
Those two weeks in Taiwan were hot and busy, an exotic mix of cultural attractions and family activities. I remember being amazed at how different a city looks when all of the signage is vertical and cryptic. The roads were clogged with cars and people driving what looked like toy motorcycles. I felt like I was on Mars. Pedestrians were carrying umbrellas not just for cover from the daily downpours, but for shade from the subtropical sun. We saw the cities (Taipei, Taichung) and the seashore. We saw steaming volcanoes and serene Buddhist temples. We toured museums, universities, and parks. We even saw a movie (Chinese Ghost Story, Part II).
And then there were dumplings. Lots of dumplings. The food was absolutely incredible. And like the young, naive traveler that I was, I ate every single thing that was put in front of me. Every mushroom, every type of seaweed, every little fish floating in the soup with its head and eyes intact. Everything. And the truth was, I loved most of it. I quickly learned that American food doesn't taste like American food in a foreign country. The hamburgers were all wrong and the fried chicken was an entire fried chicken, arriving whole with the feet still attached and the head barely lobbed off at the neck. No, the Taiwanese food was much better, and my friend's mom cooked a lot of it. Fresh, clean stir-fries with meat and various unknown greens from the market across the street. It was some of the best food I've ever had in my life to this day. It will probably come as a surprise to no one that, towards the end of the trip, I got fantastically ill. Luckily, I's parents ran a medical clinic. Judging by the gap in my otherwise regular journal entries, I think I slept for two days straight and the entire flight home.
That trip was my first clue that the world was a much bigger place than my tiny little pocket of experience had led me to believe. And even though I stayed close to home for college, I was off studying abroad the first chance I got. Meanwhile, my friend had long surpassed me academically. I knew she would go on to do great things, and she is: treating cancer here in the States. I think of her often.
That's why I make dumplings. Because they remind me of my friend.