dumplings to keep warm

Taiwan in the 70’s flourished with streetside vendors of clothes, shoes, hats, glasses, plastic housewares, toys—anything lightweight that you can imagine fitting onto one’s back in a massive 12’x8’ cloth. It’s like Aladdin’s magic carpet that carries one’s fortune ... in one fell swoop everything that can be displayed in one moment, can be made to disappear in the next. I think it’s called street hawking, but I knew it as a way of urban living.

The local police couldn’t quite keep up with patrolling and issuing violation tickets. Eventually, the already thriving streetside markets became sanctioned to house the migrant vendors in every city. Each vendor was required to register and pay for an operating license, and in due course they were assessed taxes. This was civic progress elevating the national standard of living.

This streetside market that I knew became the mecca of Taipei, not only bustling with merchandise of all sorts, but also the best eateries for noodles, dumplings, and onion cakes. One can’t imagine all the varieties of dumplings and the different ways of preparation: pan-fried, deep-fried, flash-fried, steamed, and boiled. It’s a starch heaven of the best kind to a child not yet twelve.

The best part of the cookery is the simplicity of a gigantic boiling pot or frying pan atop a coal-burning barrel. On chilly winter nights, families huddled around the barrel while awaiting their savory goods. The heated oil sizzling just enough to make the dough crispy, and the boiling water bubbling to cook through the dumplings without breaking the skin. And when you have one vendor ladling and another scraping—it’s music to a hungry child’s ears, magical in her eyes; and tasty still in my mind.

That’s how I remember it. This family meal with mom and my brother, in the dark of night and dead of winter, so it seemed to me. My coke-bottle glasses were steamed up throughout the night, with condensation of the outdoor air mingled with flavors of the open market. I never complained that I couldn’t see, I just listened to the clinking and clanking from every stall as we made our way to mom’s vendor of choice, one with seating.

Looking back, some must have operated as takeout stands, and others with seating for a quick bite. We were poor, but mom insisted that we conduct ourselves with pride for our family name. That means we ate sitting, not standing up or squatting down. Mom maintained decorum from her days of wealthy upbringing, but made whatever sacrifices necessary to keep us fed. When mom was sad, she always apologized to me for not being a better parent. But I always felt that I had enough of whatever I was given.

That night, we ordered 2 dozen dumplings: one dozen pork and cabbage, pan-fried; another chicken with Chinese chives, served in hot broth. The three of us sat and feasted on twenty-four dumplings. John ate a dozen or more, I a half-dozen or so, and mom the rest. That was how we shared as a family of three at every meal.


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