Whenever I Miss My Mom's Cooking, I Make These Delicious Veggie Dumplings
In Beijing, I lived with my parents even after I started working, and my mom prepared my lunchbox every single day. She insisted that vegetables would lose their nutrition the longer she stored them and that everything must be prepared fresh. As a result, she woke up at 6 a.m. to make one serving of a veggie stir-fry for me. Each night, she set the timer on the rice cooker so the rice would be ready the next morning. And then, in two palm-sized plastic containers, she carefully packed the brown rice and stir-fry with a main dish and usually a meat stew made over the weekend.
When I heated up my lunch at work, coworkers commented on how lucky I was to have a mom who is passionate about cooking. The truth is, my mom hates cooking! She always says she doesn't like to do anything that would make a room messy or smelly. She likes washing dishes more than searing food in a hot wok. But for more than 30 years, she cooked three meals a day for our family, using fresh produce. And dinner always included three courses and a soup.
She tells people that she doesn't know how to cook, outside of a few home-style dishes. And yet, she makes the most beautiful steamed buns with tiny pleats. And she can put twice the amount of vegetables into a single dumpling that a restaurant chef can. When I tell my American friends about my mom, I have to explain that Chinese culture treasures humility. And they still have confusion written all over their faces, wondering, "If making dumplings from scratch doesn't prove you can cook, then what does?"
I did not appreciate her food much until I moved to the United States five years ago.
Like many millennials who grew up in the '90s, my experience with food was heavily influenced by Western culture. I ate my first KFC chicken sandwich when I was 10, thinking it was the best food I'd ever had. My parents hosted my birthday party at McDonald's when I was in middle school, because it was the hippest thing to do.
Right after I arrived in the U.S. and finally got to choose my own food, I had a full-on binge. I couldn't get enough of anything cheesy, meaty, sweet and heavily seasoned. It took two years before I decided to lose the extra 15 pounds I'd gained from Popeye's fried chicken and Krispy Kreme donuts. My meals became ground turkey stir fried with a reduced amount of oil, and canned tuna in water.
Then the pandemic hit. Isolated in my Manhattan apartment with all the turmoil going on, I started craving comfort food again. And only then did I realize that, for me, comfort food also means the most simple Chinese home-style dishes: congees, rice with pickles, vegetable stir fries, and soups. On my weekly video chat with my mom, we'd always talk about what we had been eating. And when she told me she made "only some homemade vegetable dumplings and congee," I felt extra homesick.
When it comes to dumpling making, the vegetable type is usually more challenging than those filled with meat. Because unlike ground meat, which will form a meatball as a filling, vegetable fillings use chopped vegetable bits that do not bind together. When you add a spoonful of vegetable filling, it won't stay put and you need a bit more patience and skill to wrap the dumplings.
That's why it's always best to use homemade dumpling wrappers instead of the packaged ones to make vegetable dumplings. When you make dumpling wrappers fresh, the dough is elastic and springy. You can roll the wrappers out thinly, with the size slightly larger than the store-bought type. That way it's easier to stuff a bit more veggies into it. When you make the pleats, you can use a stretching motion to extend the edge of the dough, which gives you extra room to entrap the filling. It also creates a nice fat dumpling with a lot of filing and fine pleats.
My family's homemade dumplings are quite humble and use simple ingredients. My mom brings the napa cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, vermicelli noodles and fried tofu together with a dollop of sesame oil, salt and white pepper. Once cooked, the filling is hearty, crisp and nutty, with a tender fragrant dough that's slightly chewy.
I used to complain about these dumplings whenever my mom served them, because there was no meat. But now I make them at home from scratch, just like my mom. Except I get a bit of help from my stand mixer.