Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #23 02.16.2021

on the reliability of dumplings

BRIGHT, FRESH, AIRY! I wrote in my notebook for this newsletter. Try to evoke the feeling of a sunny spring day, with a slight breeze coming through the windows.

I allowed myself a rare moment of optimism last week after a bright and clear day transitioned into luminescent navy skies at 5:30pm. The figurative boulder that permanently crushes my chest shifted a little to let me take a momentary breath in the present, relieving me of my role as hostess to the unwelcome thoughts that have lingered for the last 300 days I’ve spent inside, marking all the ways I’ve wasted my life. I hate my phone, I think to myself. I’ve always hated my phone, but I need to charge it twice a day now because I can’t stop doomscrolling. I look away from my phone to my laptop where I doomscroll on LinkedIn between jobs I won’t get and notifications suggesting I congratulate others on getting hired. I click the “clapping” reaction on their posts, and sounds of slaps travel through the real air, but it’s me tapping my stomach in an attempt to calm down my heartburn.

Seeking balms in challenges instead of rest, I search for new recipes to cook in order to feel productive, and to pause my sidelong glances at my phone. Last March, I foolishly bought only 5 items on what would be my final trip to the Asian supermarket: pears, Golden Curry roux, udon, lap cheong, and dumpling wrappers. I thought our two week lockdown would allow me to learn how to make potstickers from scratch to pass the time, not realizing that I would be making 99% of my meals, and 100% of my dumplings, from scratch for the foreseeable future. The first batch had a lot of room for improvement–still, I gobbled them up and when I ran out I felt a deep uncertainty akin to running low on rice. What hot meal encapsulates convenience and satisfaction, embodies tender care, and mimics warm hugs (in a time when we can’t touch) more than a plate of dumplings?

The existence of dumplings in your life is a form of self-care and survival; a sign that you are always looking out for yourself. Buy a bag to freeze in anticipation of uninspired days where you can eat enough to make a meal. Fry, steam, or boil them on mornings when you have time to stand at the stove and revel in a moment of near silence, when all you can hear is the bubbling of water or the sizzling of oil. The practice of making dumplings, kneading and rolling the dough, mixing the filling with your hands, and the pursuit of the perfect pleat, is an act so impeccably meditative, it has the capacity to drown out both inner turmoil and outer chaos. From delicately pressing the seams to freezing them individually so they don’t stick together, there is intense care and intention infused into this process that brings a sort of pleasure to your soul that media projecting from your phone never could. To be gratified with the final product visually is payoff enough, but to sink your teeth into a homemade dumpling–blistered, crisp, chewy, and savoury–elicits unparalleled pride. 

Due to their resemblance to Chinese gold ingots, dumplings are eaten during Lunar New Year festivities for good luck and to attract wealth in the coming year. We made half a batch of dumplings for our Lunar New Year Eve dinner last week, and as we rolled, filled, pleated, and pressed, I couldn’t help but use the last iota of hope in my heart to wish for good fortune. What good is new fortune in uncontrollable circumstances, when a year ago you felt you were embarking on a path of possibility, of change, of growth, and it ended before it could even begin? Aside from good health and comfort for all, what do you wish for after you come to terms with the reality that making plans is no longer feasible? Maybe this year’s fortunes instead come as lessons in gratitude in the everyday rather than in the anticipation of major positives and negatives–an abundance in gratitude to adapting to the unknown, to the comfort of looking out for yourself, and to the meditative practices that let you look away from your doombox so that when the sun presents itself long enough to illuminate night skies, the sight of it with the sound of leaves rustling and birds chirping remind you that spring is coming, and in spite of everything falling apart

you are still alive.