The Simple Things…

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The year was 1397AD, and Gao Rui-fu was walking through the streets of Xi’an, China.  Having just returned the day before from a long trek along the fabled Silk Road, he was in search of something in his hometown, yet unsure what this “something” was.

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He passed his favorite bookstore, pausing by the new titles, thinking perhaps it was opening the page of some long-lost novel he had read in the past that was leaving this emptiness in his soul…or perhaps a new book that would take him to unchartered lands.

But walking through the dusty shelves, he walked out empty…

What could it be?

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He walked pass the lively market where Sun Ling, his childhood sweetheart, worked thinking perhaps seeing his girl again would charge his spirit and bring him out of this funk.  But having seen her last night, he walked past knowing something still was just not quite right.

He ran along the mighty Xi’an Wall, in the hopes that perhaps it was the absence of seeing his city, his streets and the people who would fill this missing space.

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This city wall, a thousand years old with a new section just finished…his father the head foreman.  An impenetrable structure, 55 feet thick at the base, Rui-fu felt pride running his hands over the large stones that made up the wall.  Still after an hour of climbing and running, no reply to the ache he felt inside.

What was he missing?

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As he wandered along, thinking about his parents, siblings and friends he has visited since his return…the parks, streets and favorite hangouts, he still could not understand what was causing this strange void inside.

He had hoped settling into the ambiance & comfort of his favorite tea shop this morning would have resolved this question, sipping the fragrance of freshly picked tea leaves, yet all that did was make him go to the bathroom more often than he wished…

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With his mind distracted, he soon found himself outside of the city center, and nearing the slum area of town…and while most people would never dream of heading down to this area, Rui-fu savored such visits.

A nod of his head to old Mr. Li and his wife, who operated a tiny restaurant in this area, perfecting the art of the Chinese dumpling (饺子 pronounced ‘jiao-zi’) and as his smile broke, happiness ran through Rui-fu.

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Something so simple, but so perfect: comfort food.  The taste of home the body craves, especially after a long absence.  Outside this simple stall, Rui-fu smelled the simple flavors and tastes of the Chinese dumpling…  He was home.

There are many great dishes from around the world, on every street corner, and over 600 years ago, after a long trek, Rui-fu refueled his spirit with a simple meal of dumplings.

With me, it is the same.

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With my home being the USA, there are days in China when I miss a great number of things.  From bread I can buy from the local bakery to the meals I take for granted.  It is at these times in China, I go off to find the one comfort food I have: the Chinese dumpling.  饺子.

Almost without fail, my first meal is at this little shop around the corner called North-East Dumplings.  The restaurant consists of two small tables.  Every time I walk in, Mr. or Mrs. Qiu are at a small table filling & folding jiao-zi with their beautiful little daughter Xiao Qiu smiling and reaching for my i-Pad so she can play her games while I wait for my meal.

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One day, when I asked if I could photograph them making dumplings, they warmly agreed.  Xiao Qiu was excited to take me to the open market to buy ingredients for the next morning, a perfect way to start the day.

The ingredients of the dumplings we made varied greatly, from pork and chives to mushroom and vegetables.  The key to great dumplings is first to make them by hand, with the art of filling & folding:

Place a small amount of fill into the shell...

1.)  Place a small amount of fill into the shell…

2.  Artfully distribute the fill as you begin the process of pinching together the sides of the dumpling…

2.)  Artfully distribute the fill as you begin the process of pinching together the sides of the dumpling…

3.) Within that movement press and shape the jiao-zi...

3.) Within that movement press and shape the jiao-zi…

4.) Finally, use magic in the final press, to ensure closure and give shape & integrity to the wonderful 饺子…

4.) Finally, use magic in the final press, to ensure closure and give shape & integrity to the wonderful 饺子…

The art of producing a perfectly made dumpling is a gift not easily mastered…and with Xiao Qiu stating matter-of-factly: “Randy doesn’t really know how to make dumplings does he?!?”  Laughter filled the room, and I decided that it was perhaps best to focus on photography instead of dumplings.

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Perhaps the greatest reason I enjoy my dumplings, is that it is the closest things I have to comfort food in China.  Something simple, yet solid and brings a sense of peace as I sit down for a meal.

$1.75 for a plate of 15 dumplings (they usually give me a few more…), and a dish of vinegar and red peppers for additional flavor brings me back to the time in Xi’an when I first enjoyed Chinese dumplings more than 20 years ago.

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In 1991, sitting in the small dumpling shop in Xi’an, missing home tremendously but for the first time starting to feel comfortable in my new surroundings that began with the discovery of my new favorite food.

Seeing all this work that goes into producing the fill, preparation of the dough and then folding & handling all these dumplings…only to be gobbled up in seconds once prepared.

There are more to dumplings than just great flavor.

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As with anything in life, if you put your heart into something (work and play), it is impossible not to walk away without creating something special.  Homemade dumplings are made special because of the hands & hearts of those who make them so.

In many ways, cooking is similar to life.  As Julia Child once put it “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Pretty good advice for life as well…

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63 Comments on “The Simple Things…

  1. I liked this post a lot, (maybe because it’s centered around food HA!) it’s different from your previous ones. I like foodie experiences that take me right into the kitchen 🙂 Rakhi.

    • Thanks Rakhi! Me too, I really have interest in food…I think the reason is because the quickest way to anyone’s heart must include a good meal or two 🙂 Happy you enjoyed.

    • Thank you, and their daughter really is a gem… They put so much into their cooking, making sure it is always quality, inspirational to have the privilege to eat there as often as I do.

  2. Oh Danny, all that remained was a little gathering and Kumba ya 🙂
    Foodie posts always take me home. You are right, nothing fills that empty space like some good old fashioned comfort food.
    That’s the unique nature of food and the human, have you noticed how the very subject transcends almost every barrier in life? Food is one thing we all need, we all must have at one time or the other and regardless of creed, we all submit to,lol Although some more than others 🙂
    This was a very delectable one, and the photographs Danny…Mercy!

    • Thanks Dotta, I am always amazed at how food can bring people together… and all we can learn a lot about each other over a meal. Wonderful times 🙂

  3. Terrific post. Great photos, great story – I enjoyed it all. And, for just a moment I believed I was there in that dumpling shop. Thanks!

  4. When we buy packaged 饺子 at home I always feel like I’m cheating a bit, as I recall the work my recently-passed father-in-law did making 饺子 for a family of ten. Lovely post, sir. Excellent images. Thank you.

    • I feel the same, and I enjoy the frozen guys ~ mainly because it makes me appreciate the great people I’ve blessed with sharing a day of making 饺子 and the feast that follows. Your father-in-law must have loved making those for everyone…

  5. Comfort food, family (whether home or abroad), and laughter. Components for bliss. Add to the mix your storytelling and beautiful images and I’m borderline spellbound. Thanks!

    • Thanks Eric…agree, being able to catch moments of bliss like this make the days that much more special. Cheers!

  6. This post is so Proustian that I have to quote the famous passage from ‘In Search of Lost Time’ about having tea and madeleines:

    “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

    • Fantastic passage, absolutely perfect. Thank you Malcolm for this, this post is very much wrapped in the realm of involuntary memory. These Proustian moments are these little jewels of discovery during the day… In Search of Lost Time, have had the book in my hands at several points in my life, but yet to crack the binding.

  7. Fantastic post.. I haven’t been to China since I was a little kid but this post made me think of home for some reason. My mom always made dumplings at home in Vancouver and she did it from scratch too (well… outside of the wrapping). They tasted eons better than anything that the restaurants would make. Love this!

    • That is great. I’m this way too… In Seattle, I will buy store bought dumplings, and enjoy them… but nothing can match the homemade ones, as they are simply on another planet.

    • Thank you, it is always the little, simple things of travel that can really make a trip special…

  8. I love discovering the particularities of the Chinese culture through your photography. I’ve never had the pleasure to travel there yet, so I really appreciate the way you explain your experiences and the visual support. I’m in love with the 1st and 9th pictures… stunning, as always!

    • Thanks Yael, the lens does allow an interesting view when traveling…and also creates interest from the locals when sharing shots & stories.

  9. Another great series Randall. The first photo is particularly strong. I really like how the hands “float” in the scene. This one makes a great environmental portrait. BTW those dumpling looks so delicious.

  10. Ohhh… I loved this post, Randy. Chinese dumplings were something I never experienced until in Asia. They are something I miss dearly now. (That and milk tea…) It’s amazing how much food really does impact us. We’d like to think ourselves unaffected by such things (at least I know I would), but, really, food is a huge part of culture… The story with which you started this post was perfect, and your images, as always, divine. You are so good!!

    • Thanks Jess. The same here, until China I had never had dumplings…and boy, once I did, they were the meal I always looked forward to having. You need to come back and refresh your taste buds again 🙂 Cheers!

  11. Hi Randy! Did you try making some dumplings? In case you hadn’t guessed 😉 I love dumplings. Thats so lucky of you to be there and get to make dumpling making photos. Thanks for he gorgeous photos.

    • I did, and while I really enjoyed making them…my dumplings were mis-shaped (and not closed very well). So I enjoyed eating them much more 🙂 You’d definitely love this scene, dumplings paradise!

      • Yeah I would have loved it! Mis-shaped dumplings are fine, I bet they were fun to make 🙂 I’m sure your dumplings tasted just superb.

  12. I do love this post!. The little girl is so cute, and the dumplings look really good… I’m hungry now! 😉

  13. Great pictures–and I enjoyed reading about the dumplings. They sound wonderful

    • Agree, chives give them great flavor…this place has a ‘chives-egg’ dumpling that is incredible.

  14. All during the post, I had a smile on my face and a sense of peace within. Because really, it is the simple things that matter and walk that extra mile straight to the heart. 🙂
    This post brought back memories of momos (similar to jiao-zi) that I had eaten at a little home/eatery in Darjeeling. It was raining heavily and the lady and her daughter served us with some delicious momos accompanied with a hot red-chilli chutney and a steaming pot of black coffee. That memory is so fresh in my mind that I remember the details of the interiors of the house, where we sat, what we could see outside of the window, the color on the walls… everything! Thank you for bringing it back because even today, my family and I crave for those momos…

    • Thanks Meghna, great story and the perfect example of how something so simple can bring us back to a time that is etched in our memory…such happiness. Just read a quote from Khalil Gibran the other day: “To be able to look back upon ones life in satisfaction, is to live twice.” These simple moments allow this to happen.

      • Such a meaningful quote! And so true. Thank you for sharing it with me, Randall. 🙂

  15. Being a lover of food, and a devourer of Chinese food, this post to me was gorgeous– the words and the photographs!

  16. BEAUTIFUL. Truly magnificent photos, & post. Liked the playful way you delivered it 🙂

    • In addition to nominating you for the above mentioned award, I would like to add that the images in this post are fabulous. Each and everyone tells a story of life’s little things. In particular I like the first one of the hands. So simple, but so beautiful.

      • Thanks Otto! The hand shot was so simple but so important to what I wanted to capture…so it was more difficult than I imagined.

    • Thanks Otto, as I mentioned your blog/photos/words are always something special… Sharing the inspiration of photography with others is pretty great. Cheers!

  17. I love the last three paragraphs, for the wisdom they carry. And the pictures? Oh boy! Best wouldn’t even bee enough to describe the human element in every shot: you’re amazing!

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