On Christmas Day the rain doesn’t stop. There is a thick layer of cloud covering the harbour and the land that surrounds it. The house where we are staying for two weeks while we’re in Wellington is surrounded by hydrangeas in all different colours: magenta, peach pink, violet, creamy white like icing. Over the last week we’ve witnessed a succession of 9 p.m. sunsets all mirroring the colours of the hydrangeas, but today: all blue. Inside, the air is damp and the floors are sandy.
It feels strange to be here, just like it felt strange not to be here. My parents have temporarily moved away from Wellington, my hometown, but we’re still here for Christmas. Toby the labrador, my best friend, is with us for two weeks and his presence (his big, wide, brown eyes) calms us. I’m not convinced he remembered me at first but I think he realises now: it’s me, his Nina. He stays close to me, padding after me wherever I go, curling up and snoozing in a chocolate-coloured ball in the corner of the room. Every now and then, between loud snores, he opens one eye, checking I’m still nearby.
The day before, we shopped at Yan’s for our Christmas feast: dumplings for two. Yan’s is one of my favourite places in Wellington. It smells like dried fish and steamed bao and somehow a little bit like durian even though I’m sure there’s no fresh durian around. It’s in that part of the city that’s weirdly quiet, all concrete and cabbage trees and tūī swooping low over the urban motorway, not quite town but not quite anywhere else, either. Like in every Chinese supermarket, for me it’s easy to be hypnotised by all the noodles: Sichuan noodles, Beijing noodles, Shanghai noodles, Vietnamese rice noodles, bean noodles, egg noodles, shrimp-and-egg noodles, refrigerated hand-pulled noodles, fresh rice noodles, vacuum-packed udon, dried udon.
We come away with soft tofu (later I’ll stack tins of tomatoes on top of the tofu cube to drain its excess water away), mushrooms, ginger, spring onions and dumpling flour, which is just regular wheat flour with more gluten. I didn’t know about dumpling flour until I started my first job in London at a Chinese community charity, where we taught Chinese cooking workshops in schools around the UK. The elasticity of dough made with dumpling flour is extraordinary. In our teaching kitchen, my colleagues and I watched a local Chinese chef roll and stretch the dough for making Shanghainese 小笼包, which require the thinnest skin and the finest folds (eighteen, to be exact, according to Din Tai Fung’s standards). I saw how the dough stretched and warmed and tensed and relaxed in his hands. It’s a less delicate dough than bread or pastry; it can bear fluctuations in temperature and humidity. It’s the perfect dough for me, the kind of cook who lacks the precision for baking. But I love taking hours to knead and shape things with my hands, feeling them change against my skin.
There are two ingredients: flour and water. Dumpling flour is startlingly bright white and fine. If you dust a handful on your skin, you’ll barely feel it. At home in my own kitchen, these would be my tools: a mixing bowl, a thin rolling pin, and a short-handled white melamine rice scooping spoon that my mum gave me—one of those that you can always find in the far back corners of Chinese supermarkets and department stores.
Toby lies curled up at my feet as I make a well in the flour with a spoon and add lukewarm water. Different recipes call for different temperatures. Cold water makes for a stiff dough, making it better for fried dumplings. Hot or just-boiled water creates a softer, more malleable texture, better for sealing the 水饺 edges tightly before they are tipped into the boiling water. This recipe from The Woks of Life calls for less water in humid climates. Fuchsia Dunlop, in Every Grain of Rice, calls for cold water. I choose blood temperature. Rain streams down the kitchen skylight.
The dough is soft but not sticky, pliant but not limp. I pull the ball into two halves, and halve those smaller balls again. With both hands I roll them into cylinders and cut them into little gnocchi-like chunks. I shape the chunk into a ball by rubbing it between my palms, that same way you learn to do with Playdough when you’re a little kid. I press down with the heel of my palm to flatten it into a disc.
I realise what I don’t see when using shop-bought dumpling wrappers, jiǎozi pí, is that the dumpling holds the shape of my skin. When I flatten the balls into discs, the last step before rolling them into thin skins ready to be folded into jiǎozi 饺子, an imprint of my palm lines appears on each one. Jiǎozi pí: dumpling skin. Pí 皮 means "skin."
Jiǎozi pí should not be perfectly flat. Unlike sheets of pasta rolled out to make ravioli or tortellini, the circle of dough should be thicker in the centre, thinning out towards the edge. This means the centre can hold the xiàn’er 馅儿 without breaking, while the edges can be tightly sealed with the your fingertips. I use the edge of the heavy rolling pin (which is built for rolling large pieces of pastry, not small 8cm-wide jiǎozi pí) to flatten the edge of the circle, rotating it with my other hand. It’s the kind of swift movement that I never thought I could be capable of when I first watched Chinese aunties and grannies do the work at breakneck speed. But now it comes to me easily, even though I’m hopelessly uncoordinated when it comes to most physical tasks involving speed and rhythm. When cooking, my body fall into a natural rhythm I didn’t know I had.
I take a small spoonful of the chopped filling (peas, tofu, mushrooms, spring onions, garlic, ginger, with a little seasoning of soy sauce and oyster sauce and sesame oil). I place it in the middle of the circle, the part that’s thickest. I seal the 饺子 with two or three folds on each side with my fingertips, so that the edge is moulded with the shape of my fingers. Every good homemade 饺子, in northern China or elsewhere, looks like this: formed inside a cupped hand, pressed shut by firm fingers. I can see the faint traces of my fingerprints on the curved outer edge of each dumpling.
When I’m feeling sick I can’t cook and I can’t eat. When we got back to dark, wintry London I got my period, which had somehow held off while I was travelling, then arrived with horrific vengeance the next day. After two days of aches and nausea, on Wednesday night I had a little strength. Able to stand now for longer than a few minutes at a time, I stood in the kitchen and thought of Rebecca May Johnson’s spell-poem-recipe for tomato sauce in the wonderful book SPELLS: 21st-Century Occult Poetry. In December I listened to her read from her poem (titled “to purge the desire to write like a man”) at Review Bookshop in London while we all tasted forkfuls of her homemade gnocchi in fresh tomato sauce. I cook tomato sauce every week, and now, when I do, lines from her poem chime in my head:
enter the kitchen
you will find
add the cold green oil
add a caution of salt
Squinting through the prickling in my eyes, I chopped two wonky shallots. I drowned them in an unmeasured amount of green olive oil, along with a peeled, crushed clove of garlic, which I couldn’t be bothered to slice properly. In went the tinned chopped tomatoes. I put the rigatoni on to boil and glanced at the time: 6.30 p.m. and already dark for hours. Steam filled my small blue kitchen. I opened the window to let in some winter air and saw my windowsill garden is beginning to come out in force: tall daffodil stems, budding irises, garlic and spring onions. I grated the last bits of the cheese left in the fridge: red leicester and mild cheddar. Sometimes you want the crispness of parmesan; sometimes you need the melted comfort of a softer cheese. I strained the pasta in the sink, shaking it just once so as to keep it wet and warm with a little cooking water, and tumbled it into the sauce.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.