Happy National Pie Day! It seems only appropriate today, January 23 Nat’l. Pie Day, to have a post somehow related to food. There are certain foods that make it somehow into every culture-pies, sandwiches, and dumplings spring to mind, so without further ado here is a guest post from Tessa Barber about potstickers and the YA novel Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. –S. Debraski
I didn’t do a lot of cooking while I was growing up. It’s not like my family wasn’t into cooking–my grandma is a first-rate Italian cook, my mother is a clever innovator and recipe tweaker, and my dad is a master of the grill. But the role that my sister and I inhabited was strictly that of the Eater. And occasional holiday-cookie-decorator.
Lo and behold, we’ve both grown up to be a little food-obsessed, and we both spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I also like to know what the characters in whatever book I’m reading are eating. (This is a double-edged sword, as reading about food just makes me really hungry.) Sometimes this aspect gets pushed to the wayside, especially in very quest-heavy narratives. So it’s a pleasure to come across a book that is basically the story of a meal.
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith is the story of Ana Shen’s family, told through the 8th grade graduation meal that they are all pulling together to cook. Ana planned on going to the graduation dance after the ceremony so she can dance with Jamie Tabata, and maybe let him know about the huge crush she has on him before he goes off to a private high school. She might even get her first kiss–she’s the salutatorian and he’s the valedictorian, so they seem made for each other. But right after Jamie’s speech and during her own, a water main breaks and floods the gym. Ana figures her plans are ruined, until her best friend Chelsea rashly suggests that Jamie and his parents come over to Ana’s house for an impromptu dinner. Ana’s not sure whether to stress out or celebrate when he accepts.
Ana happens to be bi-racial. Her mom is African-American and her dad is Chinese-American. This means that the menu for the dinner will be a delicious mix of gumbo, lion’s head, mapo dofu, fried chicken, good old-fashioned cake, and Ana’s own potstickers. It will also be a lesson in navigating the jealousies between her two grandmothers, who spend a lot of time dueling for their only granddaughter’s affection. All Ana wants to do is make sure the potstickers don’t turn out lumpy-looking, and that she gets to clean up after the torrential graduation ceremony.
At a little over 160 pages, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is both a quick read and surprisingly emotionally heavy. Its best aspects come from the realistic way that the White and Shen families interact, reflected in the sometimes-frantic, sometimes soothing rhythm of a family meal preparation:
â€œThe kitchen is a madhouse. Ana’s mom has the hand mixer going on her cake, and her dad is halfway inside the refrigerator digging through the groceries. Grandma White is banging around in the cupboard under the stove where the pots are kept, and at the counter, Nai Nai is throwing handfuls of pork into a bowl while Sammy watches. All the noise together sounds like a bad elementary school marching band.â€ (p. 55)
Immediately after finishing the book I was left with two feelings:
1. residual mental warmth from the idea of a bustling family kitchen and a family meal, (very unlike the form my cooking usually takes:
The librarian in the kitchen, contemplating burnt cookies.
photo by Emily Chiarizio
And 2: A desire to make potstickers, Ana’s signature dish.
So I did.
One of the appealing things about cooking, for me, is the sense of the unknown that comes from deciding to make something that you’ve never made before, and from a culture whose food you are not familiar with cooking. When I first started cooking for myself in college this was the worst part of cooking, because everything seemed unfamiliar and therefore seemed to take way too long. There were too many choices of what to make, not to mention trying to figure out how much I should budget for food each week, and how much food that would buy. So I started out learning the foods that I knew from growing up, and by trial and error I became someone who brings her lunch to work every day, while most people buy theirs. And now I love the challenge of a new recipe.
Ana grew up cooking potstickers, and she knows all the tricks. She doesn’t need a shopping list. But I needed to thoroughly plunder the Chinese cooking section of the library. It turns out that in most Chinese cookbooks, potstickers are not indexed or titled under the term â€œpotstickersâ€.
Well, except for the cookbook Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin–Fei Lo. And there was some helpful information that prefaced the recipe: Potstickers are called Wor Tip, which translates as â€œpot stickâ€ (p. 378), and have a little origin story of their own.
From that information I was able to find three other recipes so that I knew that I would be making the real thing. Sadly, the cookbook that was actually named Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet did not have any type of Chinese dumpling.
A great thing about cooking is that most problems that come up in the kitchen have workarounds. It’s not the end of the world if your food doesn’t look like the picture in the cookbook. I didn’t have the family training that Ana had when she was making her potstickers, so mine weren’t totally traditional. For example, I used whole wheat flour for the dough, and I couldn’t find ground pork at the store where I bought the ingredients. Traditionally, potstickers are filled with raw filling and sort of steam-fried in broth. But I was afraid that the larger chunks of pork wouldn’t cook the whole way through, so I pre-cooked the filling and then just pan-fried the potstickers. Plus I lost about â…“ of them to a mistake–after I filled the uncooked potstickers, I let them lean against each other, and they weren’t floury enough not to stick together. But the ones that were left were tasty!
Return on Investment:
I only spent about $15 on the ingredients (but I had a lot of the oils and baking stuff already in my pantry), which worked out to a reasonable $5 per meal. Would I do it again? I’d probably invest in some pre-made dumpling wrappers so I wouldn’t have to roll out each individual circle of dumpling dough. The time it took to make the dumplings (about 2 ½ hours including resting time for the dough) was worth it when I was able to pull out a container full of them for 2 days afterward and feast.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet left me with a new appreciation for Chinese cooking, family dynamics, and a good start on expanding my cooking repertoire. If you, too, want to learn more about this subject, check out any of the linked cookbooks or this ultimate guide: