Under the Table (featuring Pork and Ginger Potstickers)
“What are you thinking about, Mother?” Amelia asked, her face an inch away from mine.
Debilitated by the darkness of January, the constant surge of bad news, and a long prep day, I lay on top of our yellowing white duvet, head on pillow, waiting for sleep to invade. Amelia had followed me upstairs to share a nap when I got home from cooking, but on this day she was full of curiosity. My fingers smelled of garlic and ginger mixed with the pink sanitizing soap provided by my rental kitchen. A splotch of soy sauce stained my t-shirt and my forearm exhibited a small red welt from a burn I didn’t remember getting.
“I was thinking about a sense memory I had today in the kitchen. The smells and tastes of something I was cooking reminded me of a simpler time.” I blew all the air out of my body, attempting to feel lighter.
An aggressive wave of Portland’s incessant winter rain was moving in and heavy drops hit the skylight like someone emptying a change purse above our house.
Scared by most sounds, Amelia tensed, focusing her hickory-colored eyes onto mine. I stroked her ears and she pressed her head into my ribcage. Suddenly discovering my delicious t-shirt stain she looked intrigued while sniffing around my torso.
“I was thinking about when I was your age… 7 or 8… about a restaurant that my family used to go to. Do you remember living in New York?”
“What’s New York?” Amelia replied.
“Well, a billion years ago when I was young, I lived there with my mom and dad. We used to go out to dinner with my parent’s best friends, Marc and Mary and their daughter Tara, who was one of my best friends. The six of us would always eat at this Chinese restaurant that was a few blocks from our apartment called Chun Cha Fu.
“I remember the dining room as having red leather booths and the classic brocaded wallpaper that all Chinese restaurants used to have but don’t seem to have anymore. The waiters wore bow ties and cropped jackets and walked around the room with white dishtowels neatly folded over their arm.”
”I loved to go to the bathroom and read all the things people had scrawled and carved on the stall walls; initials in hearts: HH+WS–some crossed out with new initials written in: HH+
WS SM. There were bad words spelled incorrectly that I felt guilty for reading, “fuk u” and “WIPED MY BUT HERE.”
“And every time we went there, Tara and I took two ceramic teacups that were pre-set on every table and we’d fill them with a lot of sugar and a little tea. We’d crawl under the table amongst the feet and knees of our parents and we’d have a tea party. We’d raise our pinkies up and sip our tea like we were the Queens of England. It felt so special to be allowed to sit there and pretend to be fancy, even though we were sitting on the floor of a filthy restaurant!”
Amelia stared blankly at the skylight. “What’s tea?
“Then our waiter would arrive with a tray of metal bowls and set them on our table, removing each metal lid as he presented the order. “Here’s your Kung Pao Shrimp!” “Here’s your General Tso’s Chicken!” “Moo Shu Pork!” “Pan-fried Dumplings!”
“Tara and I would wiggle back to our seats from the floor, mouths watering, shouting and pointing, “I want that! I want that!”
“My dad would slather hoisin sauce over a pancake, spoon the moo shu’d meat on its edge, roll the pancake up tightly, and hand it to me. Then he’d deftly maneuver his chopsticks to pull a pan-fried potsticker from the metal bowl, plunge it into the soy dip, and then pop it onto my plate. We ate and ate and everything felt so safe. It felt so satisfying. I know I was just a kid, but the world was different then.”
Amelia’s eyes were wide and focused, her long eyebrows almost touching my face, “WHAT’S POTSTICKERS?!?”
“I didn’t think about politics or work or the environment. I just ate my pork dumplings and played with my friend. It didn’t take anything to make me happy.”
“Hold on one sec,” Amelia said, and then folded herself in half to sniff/ chew/ lick her posterior. Finally satisfied, she said, “Ok, now tell me more about the potstickers, mother.”
Her greying Schnauzer beard pointed downward in a Dr. Fu Manchu style, her long Labrador legs stretched out across the bed.
“I wasn’t terrified of the choices my country was making, I didn’t feel like the freedoms we’d fought so hard to earn would soon be stripped away, or that the bulging pockets of fat politicians would be deemed far more important than the collapsing infrastructure of our communities or the devastation of our planet!!”
Amelia looked a bit scared as my fervor had grown louder than our normal afternoon conversations.
“But then this afternoon I thought, ‘Maybe peace starts small. Maybe this vision I had of a time when I felt protected and happy occurred so that I could put a bit of that joy in my food. Maybe when we can’t unite over anything else, sharing a platter of dumplings is the only way. Or if you’re with someone who voted for Trump, you could pelt them with these right out of the hot oil!”
“Mother, stop,” Amelia said firmly. “Tell me about the potstickers.”
I chuckled, “Ok little one. Potstickers are Chinese dumplings filled with meat, vegetables, and seasonings. You fry them for a minute and they stick to the pot, hence the name, and then you add water and soy sauce and they finish cooking in steam. That’s what my shirt smells like. I made a lot of them today for a party I’m catering. They’re not for dogs though. They’re for clients.”
And then, as if the phrase, “not for dogs” contained an audio tranquilizer, Amelia rested her head on my arm and fell into a deep snoring sleep.
I lay there listening to her and watching the rain stipple circular patterns on the skylight. These days, when peace of mind is so hard to come by, I drink these moments up.
Of course, Chun Cha Fu disappeared decades ago. It was replaced by Carmine’s, a family-style Italian restaurant with outposts in Times Square, Vegas, and Atlantic City. You won’t find solace sitting under those tables, only tourist maps sticking out of knock-off designer handbags, but you can join me in the kitchen making my pork and ginger potstickers any time. They won’t change the news, but they’ll give you the fortitude to turn it off, take a moment to share a memory with your best friend, AND VOTE IN NOVEMBER.
Pork and Ginger Potstickers
Makes about 35 dumplings
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon dry sherry or shao shing wine
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon chili paste, such as Sambal Oelek
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped fine or grated with Microplane
- 1 clove garlic, chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped fine
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 35 round wonton wrappers (gyoza wrappers)
- 3 tablespoons vegetable (not olive) oil
- 5 tablespoons water mixed with 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- In a bowl, mix the first 10 ingredients together thoroughly with a spoon or your fingers.
- Place 5 dumpling wrappers out on a cutting board (I do this because you will undoubtedly get tiny bits of pork on whatever surface you’re folding the potstickers on and it’s much easier to clean a cutting board effectively than your countertop). Fill a small bowl with a little water. Place 1 teaspoon of the filling onto the center of each wrapper. Using your finger, trace the outside of the wonton wrapper with water. Then fold in half to make a half-moon filled with the pork stuffing. Fold the edge of the wrapper 4 times. Repeat.
- When all the dumplings are filled, heat the oil in a lidded saute pan. Taking 10 dumplings at a time, fry on medium/ high heat for 2-3 minutes, tossing midway to brown each side. Then add a few splashes of the water/ soy mixture to the pan and cover for an additional 3 minutes. This will finish the cooking process by steaming the dumplings.
- Continue with the rest of the dumplings.
I like to serve these with some soy sauce. Sometimes I mix in a splash of rice vinegar, sometimes a bit of honey, sometimes a drop of spicy oil, sometimes a few chopped chives. And funnily enough, I often eat most of the potstickers as I determine what additional taste my dip needs.
You can also fill and fold the postickers, toss them with a little extra cornstarch so they don’t stick to each other before they’re frozen, and fry/ steam them later. They’ll stay good in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Here’s a clip of me making these on KATU’s show, Afternoon Live: