Food Consumer & Creator
“It is an incredible thing to feel totally content and happy surrounded by your own kin, preparing one of the things you love most (food!). And then to gift it to family/friends, knowing that those ingredients will be turned into energy, and nourishment, for their bodies—it is such a rewarding, and near spiritual, experience.”
I am first generation Chinese-American. My mom immigrated to the States when she was in her mid-twenties, and then had me. My grandma immigrated when I was born, to help my mom take care of me. My family is from Beijing, and they love dumplings there! It is one of the classic dishes of that region. They emigrated after the Cultural Revolution, and it is humbling to hear about their experiences living through it. It is so different from my upbringing.
I am six years old watching my grandma’s hands. They move like lightning as she rolls each dumpling skin into a perfectly round wrapper, stuffing them with an expertly blended mixture of minced veggies and ground pork. I’m older now, and my grandma’s hands don’t move as fast but all those years of watching, and learning from her, have taught me so much more than just how to prepare the dish.
Living through the Cultural Revolution deeply shaped my family’s relationship to food. They did not have a lot of money, and meat was very difficult to come by, and it was expensive. There are a lot of recipes that were created out of necessity that are cheap, and fill you up. Now, my mom makes these recipes for me as comfort food. One of them is called Congee, or Jook. It is a rice porridge, consisting mostly of water, with a little bit of rice. You soak the rice so long that it puffs up, making something similar to an oatmeal texture. My mom tells me stories about how they would throw bones into the recipe, so it could acquire some meat flavoring. To this day, my mom likes to make sure that I am getting enough meat, or protein, in my diet. She always says, “No matter how strapped for cash you are, you can sacrifice on other living expenses, but you can never sacrifice on food.” Food is the foundation of where we get our energy, how we provide for our bodies. I think that mindset comes from her past experiences with food scarcity. She has always instilled in me the value of eating well.
There are three generations of women standing around the kitchen island at my mom’s home in Houston. Our hair pulled back, hands coated in flour, chatting away about life. The granite countertops are barely visible under all the bowls and cutting boards, and there is a healthy layer of flour dusting everything. The three of us are kneading, stuffing, and rolling out dough. There are few things more precious to me than these moments.
My grandma and my mom are very messy! I am very neat, so I try to clean up while we are in the process of making the dumplings. My mom gets mad at me! She says, “No, you can’t clean up right now. We need that bowl. Stop! I need you over here. The kitchen is going to be messy, that is just how it is!” It is a multi-step process, so it is messy. Someone is making the dough, someone is rolling out the dough and the skins, and another person is bundling them up, making the dumpling. There are lots of hands everywhere, and lots of ingredients! Traditionally, I think it is a communal recipe. All of my friends, who have similar memories, say the same thing. It is always communal. I think that is a very beautiful aspect of it.
We usually make a pork stuffing, which consists of ground pork, lots of Chinese chives, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and some soy sauce. We make a big batch of it, two to three pounds. Dumplings are very labor intensive, so when we make them, we make multiple batches to freeze. We always have trays coming in, and out, of the freezer. The process has many moving parts, and I have fond memories of the chaos.
There is no written recipe for the dumplings, only a lived recipe. This makes the dish so special. I hope to one day sit down and write it all out, but there is so much that would be hard to quantify! Even when I call my mom with a question about how much flour to add, she will respond with something like, “Just add enough until it feels right!”
I hear laughter and the loud voices of women teasing, gossiping, talking. We are all enjoying the presence of one other. There is no sound more beautiful. It smells like raw flour and sesame oil. Sesame oil is the finishing oil my grandma would put into the stuffing. It has a very strong, savory, nutty scent. To this day the smell of sesame oil always brings me back to this memory.
Thankfully, I now have a beautiful, and healthy, relationship with food, which is not something I’ve always been able to claim. When I was in middle school, and high school especially, I had a much more complicated relationship with food. I was always afraid to eat too much, and was also embarrassed because my mom would always make Asian meals. I didn’t want to stick out, I didn’t want to eat anything that other people viewed as “weird”, or looked “funny”. I was very self conscious. Now, I would love to eat that homemade meal from my mom, but going through high school, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted her to make a casserole, or spaghetti, or whatever the white American families were eating.
The first dumpling you eat after all the hours of hard work is the absolute best! It is piping hot from the pot, lightly dipped in soy sauce, and while it cooks, the juice from the stuffing gets trapped in the dumpling, so when you bite into it the broth spills into your mouth. This memory, and similar memories, have completely shaped the way I think about food. It is why I love cooking, and sharing food so much. It has become such an important part of who I am.
Since graduating from college, moving out on my own, and growing up, I have learned to listen to my body (and heart!) when it comes to what I want/need, and have developed an intuitive relationship with food. I’ve stopped labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, and eat what feels right to me! I have also developed a deep appreciation for all different kinds of foods. I think that cooking Asian food, Chinese in particular, is one of the most practical ways I can partake in my Asian identity. I am really grateful that I changed this personal narrative. I think Asian food is the best! It is so flavorful. It has so much umami.
I have considered becoming a pescatarian, or a vegetarian, for a period of time. I just know my family would not understand why I was limiting myself. In their youth, they needed meat because they were malnourished. It is an interesting dialogue that requires more complex conversations. I believe we should feel good about consuming, and partaking in the experience of our cultural dishes. We can still create these memories with our families, but maybe on a regular basis just be more mindful of the meat we are consuming, or choose more plant-based options. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing choice. One thing I have definitely learned from my Chinese family is their respect for meat. When people talk about over consumption of meat, that is something we often lose sight of, the respect for the life of the animal.
Many Asian dishes are not meat centric, the way American cuisine can be. I think because so many Asian dishes were developed through periods of scarcity, if the dish has meat, it is in a limited capacity—a little bit of ground meat, or different cuts of meat that are not as desirable here in the States. It makes me appreciate Asian cuisine—how complex it can be.
When I make dumplings I am partaking in an activity that generations before me partook in. I feel absolutely at home! I forget to check my phone, or the fact that there is an entire world outside. It is an incredible thing to feel totally content and happy surrounded by your own kin, preparing one of the things you love most (food!). And then to gift it to family/friends, knowing that those ingredients will be turned into energy, and nourishment, for their bodies—it is such a rewarding, and near spiritual, experience.
This isn’t a recipe but I absolutely love anything from Woks of Life. They are a family-run website that is filled with authentic Asian food recipes and I ALWAYS go to them when I’m not sure how to cook a dish.
I am a photographer and digital creator based in Chicago, IL! I grew up in Houston, Texas and moved to Chicago five years ago where I now reside with my husband and our two cats.
[ Geneva Boyett is photographed in her home in the neighborhood of Albany Park, in Chicago, Illinois, on 120mm film. ]