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 want to write about comfort food and childhood, but there are too many places to start. I want to read and write more about how “comfort food” is a phrase we tend to associate with guilt and shame. I want to write about how I try to make my relationship with food all about joy, nourishment and comfort, and how sometimes I fail, but that there are certain things that help: cooking food, and writing about food.
I want everything I eat to give me joy, nourishment and comfort. I want to banish the word “indulgent” from my vocabulary of eating. I want to bite into something and let electric currents of joy fizz along my nerves, all the way down. I want to be transported to a distant home. I want to cook comfort food as an act of love and I want people to do this for me. I want this every day, always, simply because it makes life better and because we deserve joy and nourishment all the time, always, not just when we’ve done something that makes us feel like we’ve earned it.
“What’s your favourite comfort food?” is one of the best questions you can ask someone. I have too many answers. There are those from childhood: instant noodles with the soup strained away, French toast made with sliced supermarket bread, crispy squares of fried turnip cake, silky rice rolls with char siu pork inside, soft-serve chocolate ice cream melting in the heat of a northern summer. And there are the new comfort foods that I discover in each new place I learn to call home: sticky rice wrapped in fragrant lotus leaves, hand-pulled noodles tossed in soy sauce and oil, soft stir-fried eggplant and bowls of tiny cloud-like wontons.
This is the first of a series of short essays/poems/pieces. I'm calling it the Noodle Soup Diaries because to me, soup noodles are undeniably the ultimate comfort food. First up on the menu of my dreams: wontons.
The wonton, the dreamiest of all Chinese dumplings, goes by different names depending on the language or dialect. Here are three different words that all mean “wonton”, and their literal translations:
馄饨 húntun irregular-shaped dumpling
云吞 yúntun cloud swallow
抄手 chāoshǒu to fold one’s arms
I grew up with the delicate Cantonese kind, little round bundles of pork and shrimp (sometimes only shrimp) encased in a golden skin made of flour and egg so thin it’s semi-transparent. The joy is in the texture as much as the taste; soft and slippery like swallowing a cloud. They float on a bed of thin egg noodles in gingery soup. We eat them in Chinatown restaurants and crowded mall foodcourts and fish & chip shops with plastic chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other. No sound but slurping and every now and then, a sigh.
I’ve learnt that the skins of dumplings get thicker the further north you travel in China. The wontons of Shanghai are less famous outside of China, but distinctive: heavier, heartier, filled with pork rather than shrimp. These 小馄饨 (xiao huntun, simply “small wontons”) are different from the ethereal Southern Chinese version. So small that you could eat several in one mouthful. Just a tiny dollop of pork and ginger enveloped in a thicker dough made from flour, egg, salt and water, similar to the consistency of handmade pasta. I always thought they looked like small princesses dressed in gowns far too big for them.
I lived off these xiao huntun when I lived in Shanghai as a student. For a quick and comforting breakfast, lunch, dinner (or a snack in between) I went to my favourite cheap diner on the corner of the street where I lived, paid around $1.50 for a bowl of twelve and slurped them down while reading my book. An instant cure for homesickness, heartache and weariness of all kinds. I’d leave feeling stronger, warmer and more myself than before.
I used to watch the mother and daughter making wontons in the back corner of the shop, while another woman (an aunt, maybe?) lowered the tiny dumplings into a giant pot of boiling water and doled even portions into green bowls. A square-shaped wrapper in the palm, a teaspoonful of pork in the centre, then squeezed shut in one swift motion. They worked at a rate of about one wonton each per second, all while taking customers’ orders and while watching reality TV on their iPad propped up on the table between them. The women’s hands moved so fast their fingers were a blur.
Since leaving Shanghai, I miss 小馄饨 most of all. I tried to make them myself using shop-bought wrappers and a filling made from pork, garlic and ginger, but couldn’t get the folding technique quite right. They weren’t so light and ethereal as I’d dreamed – more lumpy and wonky than floating clouds.
But still, if I measured against the memory, my recreation was almost right. I felt the familiar warmth and glow, breathing in the smell of ginger and spring onions and steam that wafts out onto the streets of Shanghai late into the night. Plastic chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other.
My family eats wontons wherever we go. 1 o’clock in the morning at a 24-hour dim sum restaurant somewhere in suburban Toronto, since we were hungry after just getting off the plane. On Christmas Day in a shopping mall food court in Shanghai. At crowded eateries in various Chinatowns in New York, London, Singapore, San Francisco. In Chinese takeaway shops in Wellington, the small city we call home. In busy airports, at street-side stalls in my mum’s hometown in Malaysia, at home in front of the telly.
In Hong Kong in October I meet up with someone I love. We wander beneath the purple sky and neon lights towards a noodle shop called Mak’s Noodle. Like everywhere good food is eaten in big cities, the place is small and crowded and everything happens fast. I notice there’s slightly more elbow room than in other noodle shops where only locals go, perhaps to make tourists and expats feel a little more at ease--but you’re still sharing a tables with an uncle and auntie and grandpa, just as it should be. I order wantan mee, just about the only thing I can say with confidence in Cantonese, with a side plate of steamed gai lan, Chinese broccoli. These are the only two items on the menu.
Mak’s Noodle is apparently the most famous wonton noodle shop in Hong Kong and I can see why. The wontons are cloudlike and slippery with pale golden tails floating in soup that is so delicious and fortifying it sends waves of warmth right to my bones. The egg noodles are thin and crinkly, just how I like them, hard to get a good grip on with chopsticks. We eat quickly and noisily, crunching on bright green stems of gai lan. We step out onto the busy street street and stand by the shop’s front window for a moment, watching two chefs (one for noodles, one for dumplings) deep in concentration, assembling bowls of soup and lifting ladlefuls of tiny wontons into each with practiced precision. The making of a bowl of wontons is an art, just like the eating of one. We wander on through the lovely humid air.
In summer in Wellington, my friend Rose and I swim in Oriental Bay in the evening after work. The sky is gigantic and blue. I count two faint wisps of cloud above the hills. The moon has already risen by late afternoon, a shy arc just visible against deepening blue. We wriggle into our swimsuits beneath both sun and moon.
Rose swims out to the swimming platform and back several times. I dip my body three-quarters into the water and paddle gently, wary of jellyfish and the stinging cold. We dry off clumsily, becoming slowly aware of the gnawing feeling in our stomachs and a weakening in the backs of our knees. I love swimming, partly because of that particular kind of post-swim hunger which can only compared to hunger after sex. The ache that tells you if you don’t go eat something soon your limbs might liquefy. It must have something to do with the weight of water on our muscles, the strain of using parts of our body we never use on land.
Still with sand between our toes and thighs, we sit by the window of a tiny Chinese takeaway in the city. We eat bowls of wontons and noodles and chat over steam clouds. A Taste of Home -- the best name for a noodle shop ever -- is the only place we’ve found in Wellington that has thick, chewy hand-pulled noodles (the ones that originate in central China) and handmade wontons. We sip sugary peach juice between mouthfuls of soup and chilli oil, cheeks red and eyes watering. I balance a fat wonton between my chopsticks while wind beats against the windows. The sound and taste of home.
This piece was originally published on Food Memory Bank, a blog that collects people's food memories, created by Rebecca May Johnson.
(four windy, sunburnt weeks spent back home)
The last few days in Shanghai were strange and happened fast. Exams come and go and suddenly I’m packing my suitcase full of summer clothes. My last meal in the city is ramen and green tea in an underground mall. At midnight the sky is dark pink.
There’s something calming about plane travel when the place you’re headed for is exactly where you need to be. The strangeness of the past 72 hours feels remote and cannot touch me here, like they happened to someone else very far away. I can only sit and wait and eat my airport-bought chocolate bar and try to imagine what it’ll be like going home again. I’ve imagined it so many times it’s starting to feel like where I’m going isn’t real.
On my flight from Auckland to Wellington the captain announces which volcanoes to look out for today. I see craters in the distance surrounded by cloud oceans and cloud mountains. When the clouds start thinning I can just make out islands underneath. I get breathless and there’s a fizzing sensation in my stomach, like popping candy.
It’s both comforting and unsettling to be back. It makes me uneasy that everything looks just the same as before I left, like I never left at all, like the past year never even happened. It’s as if I’ve travelled back in time and no one else knows I’m from the future but me. What did I expect? Why did I think it would look any different?
On the fourth day, walking home from the bus stop just after 3am, I look up. The whole sky is full of faint stardust clouds, entire galaxies inside. Some stars are dark red, some orange, some are hot and blue. Out of these hundreds, some must be planets. I stand there on the street for a long time, just looking. I’ve been hungry for stars.
The dog is half napping, half watching me from his blanket in the corner of the kitchen. Every now and then I go and kiss his ears. He doesn't look up but wiggles his tail in reply. I eat a handful of raspberries while waiting for the water to boil. I cut my toast into soldiers and I slice off the top of the egg with a butter knife. I dip my toast into the yolk while a scientist on RadioNZ talks about detecting ‘volcanic utterances’ under the sea. I spend the rest of the day thinking about the words volcanic utterances.
Whenever the uneasy feeling comes back, cooking calms me down. Breakfast is a ritual. A soft-boiled egg, poached eggs on toast, French toast with fried bananas or just dark raisin bread with butter. Throughout the day, when all my friends are at work, I make toasted muesli and focaccia. I wash strawberries and peel sour little apples picked from our tree.
It’s a shame summer hasn’t come this year, people keep saying. But I can forgive the weather so long as there’s apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries. I make a pie out of apples and raspberries eat it for breakfast several days in a row, with ice cream. The whole house smells like cinnamon and peaches.
Some days it’s hot enough to pretend that summer really has come. January is the month of peach pits in the grass, hands smelling like sunscreen, fingers stained by plum juice. Dad listening to the cricket on the radio, the low crackly voices just audible through the thick ringing of cicadas. We go for drives like we did when I was little, stopping by the beach to get ice creams (one hokey pokey, one boysenberry ripple, one chocolate). I swear ice cream tastes better by the sea, Mum says.
I haven’t had a bite of Chinese food in two weeks. It doesn’t feel right. The confusion of never being fully at home in one cuisine over another, a feeling those who also grew up between two cultures will understand. In China I miss home comforts like crumpets, cheese, apple crumble. In New Zealand I crave Chinese food—especially street food—silken tofu, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
New Zealand writer Robin Hyde visited China in 1938 and recorded the experience in her travel memoir Dragon Rampant. She spent a short time in Shanghai, where had dreams of back home: “Almost every night, lying in the padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses were a fairy-tale.” Those first few nights back in my old bed, in my old room, I dream of plane trees and rain-soaked streets and a night sky that is never dark.
One rainy morning I pick spring onions from the garden and recreate from memory my friend’s recipe for egg & spring onion pancakes. Shanghai street food in my kitchen by the sea. The closest thing to being in two places at the same time.
I spend most evenings rubbing aloe vera gel on my sunburnt skin and watching David Attenborough documentaries. Not everything is the same as it was before; you just have to look closer. A door in our house that always used to swing shut now swings open. Dad thinks the earthquake in November might have slightly altered the levels of the house, or shifted the ground beneath.
On days when the temperature climbs above 19 degrees, I’m in the water. Ocean swims are what I looked forward to most. M and I have a picnic on the hottest day, when the wind has momentarily disappeared. We eat stone fruit on the beach, dripping nectarine juice on our thighs, then we swim out to the platform in the middle of the bay. It takes me less and less time now to go fully under, even though the water is cold as knives at first. It’s unbearable until it isn’t anymore.
I go swimming with K in Oriental Bay. We dive under the waves and resurface to examine the rising moon. Do you know about the craters on the moon? They have such beautiful names he says in between waves and I think of the volcanoes again as I float on my back, arms outstretched, pretending my fingers are jellyfish tendrils. I glance at the tattoo on my arm, warped and rippling underwater. It’s still there, which means this past year was not a dream.
I’m reading a book of essays called Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young. After finishing it I carry it around with me wherever I go. I keep coming back to this bit: “When I take my breath and jump into the space between the rock and the coldest water, I become light as air. I am air, and I try to stay like this, suspended, made whole in air, in stillness.”
We lay our towels down on the sand to dry off, quietly aware we’re slowly burning.
I wake to the news that 416 pilot whales have stranded at Farewell Spit in the South Island. There are scenes on the news of people standing neck-deep in the ocean forming a human chain to stop the whales re-stranding. I tell K about my recurring dream, the one that came back a few nights ago, in which all the water drains away and blue whales strand themselves in the harbour. He says I must have moon whale sense. I can’t watch the news anymore.
During my last weekend in Wellington I go see Moonlight by myself at my favourite movie theatre. Afterwards I check my phone and there’s a message from my friend D, who lives in Shanghai: Your home is so beautiful – you must really like China to want to move away from it and live here.
A warm bluish glow follows me out of the cinema and settles somewhere inside my ribcage. A guy who works there who's having his smoke break asks me if I liked the movie. The answer is yes, but it will be a while before I understand why. The entire film, almost every still and every colour, reminded me too strongly of that feeling of being in a crowded room but only being aware of the presence of one other person, knowing if they come any closer you might burn up, but neither of you can do or say anything. I think of the other day when K and I went to the museum. In the bug exhibit there was an interactive display about a bug scientist who stung himself with all kinds of stinging insects and created a scale of different types of pain. One of them, some type of fire ant, felt like a thousand blowtorch kisses on your skin.
Later that evening I have dinner with S. We walk together to the building where her tango milonga is held. The sky has turned from pink and gold to deep violet. As we approach the place we can hear tango music in the distance and we fall silent, listening. She has described this moment for me before and now we are living it.
I get home late and the garden is drowning in moonlight, the house full of blue shadows. In Shanghai there is not enough moonlight. I add this to my mental list of things that remind me how to love this place: ocean swims, the birds, stars rising before dark, homemade marshmallows at Loretta, good Malaysian food, the cute baristas who still work at the same cafés, the way the wind carries sound like the city is a wide valley, encircled by hills and small islands to keep us from stranding.
I leave with sun-bleached hair, sunburnt thighs and a suitcase full of dark chocolate, toffee pops, peppermint tea and crumpets. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean I begin to feel fine about leaving again, knowing I’ll be back quite soon, knowing it’s perfectly possible to have two homes at once: one made of skyscrapers and one made of deep sea volcanoes.
egg & spring onion pancakes
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.