During the COVID-19 pandemic, my mom devoted a significant portion of her time to creating a potsticker assembly line in my uncle’s house.
A few hours before dinnertime, my mom would make the dumpling filling — containing mushrooms and pork — while my sister and I sat at the kitchen counter. There would be a stack of dumpling skins beside each of us, and we would wrap dumplings until the bowl of filling was empty. While this happened, my mom would line a pan with potstickers until each inch of the cast iron was covered, and fry them in groups of 30.
When I describe this scene to my peers in North America, it’s a narrative that makes sense in relation to my cultural background. The potsticker assembly line sounds like something out of a proletariat retelling of Crazy Rich Asians.
But there’s something significant about this story: I never made potstickers growing up.
I lived in Shanghai, China for 17 years with a Chinese mom and an American dad. Potstickers, a type of dumpling cooked by slightly charring its bottom while also steaming it, were not something that I grew up eating at home. In Shanghai, my mom much preferred wrapping wontons — another type of dumpling that used square wrappers, which we usually ate in a soup. Wontons were much less labour-intensive than potstickers. At home, our family constantly wrapped and stored wontons in our freezer and made them for lunch when we were in a rush. It was a meal that could be made and consumed within an hour.
This all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic happened and we found ourselves stranded outside our home country due to border closures, living with my dad’s family in Salt Lake City, Utah. Unknowingly, I left the perpetual humidity and sensory overload of Shanghai and was plunged into the bone-dry Salt Lake Valley. After weeks of chapped lips, sunburn, and long, pointless drives up and down canyon roads, I felt as windswept and arid as the salt flats around me.
I think my mom felt it too. One day, she asked me if I could drive her to the Asian grocery store that we often passed before taking the on ramp to the interstate. I had nothing else to do, so I obliged.
When I stepped into that grocery store, I was hit with a wall of packaging labels written in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. It was as if the store owners had tried to take advantage of every inch of the space they had and crammed it with products. From floor to ceiling were produce, packaging, and characters that I hadn’t seen, touched, or read in months.
I stood in the midst of chaos, but that chaos made more sense to me than any of the identical manicured lawns I now walked past every day. I had never set foot in that grocery store before, but that was the first time in a while where I knew what I was doing.
That night, for the first time, I learned how to wrap potstickers. Folding those intricate pleats in the dumpling skin came so naturally that it never occurred to me how strange it was to engage with an aspect of my culture for the first time in a foreign country at 18 years of age.
Potstickers — something that my mom and I never usually made at home — became a food that carried more significance than we realized the day we went to the Asian grocery store, be it a bid for acceptance, a gesture of love when words fail, or a prayer to one day finally make it home.
In China, the dumpling is an umbrella term, covering a wide array of foods that involve wrapping filling of any kind inside a thin piece of dough. The term “potsticker” is a literal translation of the Chinese word 锅贴 (guō tiē). It is a pan-fried variation of jiaozi, a type of crescent-shaped dumpling said to be invented during the Eastern Han dynasty, almost two thousand years ago.
Zhang Zhongjing, a famous herbalist deemed “the sage of medicine,” noticed inhabitants of a village with frostbitten ears one winter. As a remedy, he warmed up the villagers by placing mutton, chili, and medicinal herbs in a thin piece of dough and wrapping the ingredients into the shape of an ear. After boiling the pockets of dough, Zhang Zhongjing distributed them to the villagers, and the first jiaozi were born.
Nowadays, jiaozi are one of the most widespread types of dumpling in China. In some regions of China, they are wrapped and eaten during Lunar New Year’s Eve. Because the shape of jiaozi looks like gold ingots, eating it on New Year’s Eve represents a blessing for an auspicious year to come. The process of wrapping and cooking the jiaozi creates family cohesion like no other activity.
Because the entire dumpling-making process is so labour-intensive, making jiaozi is almost never a solo effort. In a few lonely November afternoons in Toronto, I have made potstickers from scratch by myself. It took me almost five hours to prepare, wrap, and cook about 90 dumplings.
Wrapping potstickers takes some skill. There are various ways to pleat the dumpling wrappers so the filling doesn’t spill out into the pan when cooking them. The time it takes to make a large amount thus depends on the number and the skill level of the people wrapping the potstickers.
By September 2020, the potsticker assembly line consisting of my mom, my sister, and me was a well oiled machine. My sister and I would talk among ourselves and a YouTube video would play in the background while we wrapped potstickers, silently hoping our rapid Mandarin and methodic focus would ward off the intrusion of our extended family and their casual microaggressions from the home we carved out in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley.
Ironically, the potsticker assembly line we created helped us belong in a culture where we felt alien. Potstickers were an agreeable enough food that, instead of turning their noses up at what we made, my extended family showered us with compliments about how we made “authentic Chinese food.” The same people who complained about the smell of the kimchee I ate for lunch or the stinky tofu I missed so dearly praised me for making something I didn’t even learn to cook in my hometown. Even so, in an environment where I stuck out like a sore thumb, I was going to take all the acceptance I could get.
In Toronto, this bid for belonging shifted from a tactic for survival to a ritual to remember my family from afar. I taught a few close friends how to wrap potstickers, and every so often, we’d spend a few hours on a weekend cooking. Like the assembly line that my mom created in Salt Lake City, the dining room table that my friends occupied would be covered in potsticker wrappers and uncooked dumplings while I stood in front of the stove, putting out plate after plate of warm, crispy potstickers. Afterward, when we’d sit our sweaty and flour-covered selves down to take that first, indescribable bite of food, I’d feel a joy that only food made from a collaborative effort could bring. Potstickers brought me closer to my friends and family in a way that words and phone calls could not.
I still remember the first time I made potsticker filling by myself. I was in my residence hall in Toronto, a month after I moved to Canada. On my computer was an opened notes page with ingredients written haphazardly in Mandarin across the page, a half-formed recipe that I typed the night before over a FaceTime call with my mom. Like most of the recipes my mom shares with me, there were no measurements for any of the ingredients in it. I was just supposed to know how much of each ingredient to add, but the task wasn’t daunting. I freehanded and tasted my way through my first batch of independently made potstickers. The entire time, I heard my mom’s kind but worried voice in my head, directing me on what to do.
I’m a lot better at making potstickers now. Anytime I want to catch up with friends and I feel like eating potstickers that week, I invite them over to help wrap them. When we talk and laugh, it almost feels like I’m talking to my sister — who I haven’t seen in three years. Everyone who helps with the cooking process leaves with a Tupperware full of dumplings.
Love through potstickers
I find expressing love difficult. In China, 我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ), the Mandarin equivalent to “I love you” holds a lot more weight than the English phrase. My family said “I love you” to each other all the time, but when we spoke in Mandarin, we fell silent at the words of affection, the phrase almost too heavy to utter into existence. The moment only lasted for a split second before we quickly switched to saying “I love you” in English, but the hesitation is tangible.
The weight that the words “I love you” holds falls significantly short of the love I have for those close to me. Words don’t fail — they just seem insufficient. 我爱你 is far more appropriate, but none of my friends speak Mandarin. To remedy this gap in communication, I make potstickers in hope that the love, care, and appreciation I have for the food I make translates to the feelings I have for those I care for most.
At the start of 2023, China opened its borders for the first time since early 2020.
At the end of 2022, I caught the flu. In January 2023, my feeble body rose in the midst of piles of laundry and class notes, which were covering every inch of my bedroom floor. I looked around, conscious of my surroundings for the first time in days and told myself, “I’m going home.”
Thus, I began the long slog of getting a visa approved to go back to China. Over the Lunar New Year, I followed rituals for luck to a tee. On New Year’s Day, I didn’t sweep my floor, take out the trash, or wash my hair, for fear of sweeping, of throwing, of washing my luck away. I hoarded luck and took a mental tally of all the things I could do that could somehow bring me closer to my family. I asked two friends to help wrap dumplings on New Year’s Eve in a desperate bid to emulate the sense of togetherness. I almost always spend Lunar New Year — a holiday where, traditionally, the entire family must be present to celebrate — away from home.
When my hands mix filling for potstickers, when my fingers gently pinch and pleat the dumpling skin, I build a little part of home in my Toronto apartment, even if I’m preparing a food that I technically have no childhood connection with whatsoever. I often have to fight to carve out this piece of home, to wrest it from the unforgiving clutches of distance.
But disaster struck the night before New Year’s Eve. I was awake until 5:00 am trying to finish an assignment. The day we were supposed to make potstickers, I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open. We ordered takeout for dinner.
On the night of the Lantern Festival, the last day of the 15-day Chinese New Year, my sister called me and urgently reminded me to eat some tang yuan. Tang yuan are glutinous rice balls with filling, cooked in a hot broth or syrup. They are eaten on the last day of the Chinese New Year, and the dish symbolizes family togetherness.
That night, I ate tang yuan with conviction. Those balls of glutinous rice, and my repeated rituals of wrapping and cooking potstickers, were desperate bids to finally stand amidst the only chaos that I understood.