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.
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?
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…