Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Favorite food. potstickers/sui jiao.

When I was growing up, we were almost never without a bag of jiao zi - dumplings - in the freezer. On nights when there wasn't time to cook, we would boil dozens of them, drain them, and eat them dipped in a soy-based sauce. I would make the sauce while the dumplings cooked - it was one of my first kitchen tasks - usually slicing some scallions (which I never could slice thinly enough to please my mother) and mincing some garlic, stirring them into a bowl of soy sauce and sesame oil. You could add hot sauce and/or vinegar, the black Chinese vinegar or cheap Balsamic, or just plain red or white vinegar, whatever you have on hand. It is the ultimate fast food for lazy nights.

In China and Taiwan they can be bought from street vendors, the perfect cheap eat, scooped out from deep vats of boiling water with huge wire ladles. The summer I was seventeen I spent six weeks in Taipei attending summer school, and some nights we would slip away from the awful cafeteria food and head to a dumpling stall some blocks away. I forgot how much they cost, but it was something like a few dollars for ten or twelve sui jiao, tossed in a takeout box with a sprinkling of soy sauce and sesame oil and perhaps a little vinegar, eaten in the darkness, sitting on a bench in the park, with a pair of disposable bamboo chopsticks that came wrapped in filmy translucent plastic.

Several years and a lifetime later I found myself in Xi'an for the first time in over fifteen years. For dinner one night we went to a restaurant that only served jiao zi. It was a huge, sprawling open space overlooking a bare concrete plaza full of young people hanging out and enjoying the summer evening. The tables were bare plastic, the seats were hard benches. Young, uniformed waitresses ran around with oval platters piled high with steaming dumplings, ignoring us until my mother completely lost all patience and slammed her (empty) teacup on the table and said XIAO JIE! (MISS!) in her most terrifying-voice-that-is-more-effective-than-a-yell. The waitress who was unlucky enough to be standing closest to our table actually jumped, her pigtails vibrating with shock and terror. After that someone came by every two minutes to make sure we had enough dumplings and tea and bowls of dipping sauce.

The dumplings my mother bought at home were usually made of pork, with chopped chives (which I hated) or napa cabbage. They came in clear plastic bags (labelled in Chinese, which I couldn't read) from the Chinese grocery store. Now I buy ones made with chicken and vegetables from Costco, and I fry them, which makes them (technically) potstickers, which I love even more than the plain boiled sui jiao. The former has a crisp crust along the bottom from prolonged contact with a lightly oiled pan; I love the contrast between the soft skin of the dumpling and the crunch of that stripe of crust. Potstickers were the only thing I liked to eat at Chinese restaurants, and after I outgrew the age where I was allowed to order them when we went out to eat (because they were for little kids who didn't know better) they became a rarity in my life. Until I was old enough to be living on my own and could eat whatever I wanted (not necessarily the best thing, given that some nights I have some yogurt and a bag of M&Ms for dinner).

Now that I have my supply of dumplings in the freezer (next to the ice cream, frozen peas, and vodka), whenever I want to I can sit back with my plate of potstickers, settled in to watch tv and eat my steaming hot dumplings, with the crisp bottom crust, in a slightly sweet-salty-sour-hot sauce, soothing and comforting and the perfect dinner.

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