I’ve always hated “dumplings.”
Is it really possible to sum up my various childhood memories with a single English word? If jiaozi is what everyone seems to equate with “dumplings,” then what are wonton and baozi and tangbao and xiaolongbao and zongzi and tangyuan and—
Alas, nobody seems to understand my woes, because “Chinese food” in America seems to be reduced to Peking duck and Kung Pao chicken (they’re not even from the same part of China). Don’t even get me started on Panda Express; to this day, I have still yet to step foot into one of these establishments that are viewed as “Chinese food” by my peers because, really, how disrespectful would that be! What saddens me more, however, is the thought that some people will treat these dishes as “authentic Chinese food” without ever being able to try the flavors I have etched into my mind.
I miss the taste of my childhood, of hongshao rou (braised pork in soy sauce), shenjian bao (pan-fried pork buns), kaofu (roasted bran), congyou banmian (noodles in scallion, oil and soy sauce)… I miss eating these traditional Shanghainese dishes with my grandmother and my mother every weekend at a new restaurant. I miss being in the city I loved so dearly, surrounded by family and friends. My nostalgia and homesickness comes back to me whenever I indulge in my favorite Chinese dishes, and the bittersweet memories flood my brain with every bite I take.
It’s a kind of taste that I cannot replicate when I’m away from home, no matter how many bottles of Lee Kum Kee soy sauce and sesame oil I buy from 99 Ranch Market. The Chinese restaurants near me can get “close enough,” but there’s always something missing, and I can’t seem to put a finger on it.
I invite you to branch out from Panda Express and “dumplings,” because there’s not much authenticity in an American Chinese fast food chain, and there are so many different types of dumplings to choose from. Maybe the element that’s missing is that this taste of nostalgia I’ve been chasing after is meant to be shared, not only with those who share the memories but also those who are willing to hear our stories.