Monday, 16 December 2013

Dumplings and the Revolution in Ukraine

For the last four weeks, I’ve let a revolution take over my life.

My days and nights have been filled not by dumpling dissertations – or many other more important pursuits – but by events on a public plaza in an Eastern European city in the middle of its winter of the weather but its spring of the spirit.

I’ve been constantly following the pro-democracy Euromaydan Movement in Ukraine, my parents’ birthplace, as literally millions of Ukrainians stand in the snow and sleet to sing “songs of freedom”, as Bob Marley called them.

Here in Australia, with friends and very patient family, I’ve been helping to organise “Kangaroo” Maydans where we stand and sweat in the sun in some solidarity. (Our friend, Katya S., on the photo at a recent Melbourne event.)

I write this ep in a suburban shopping mall’s food court, eating chicken mince pan-fried dumplings in triangle shapes. My neighbours are elderly Chinese eating KFC, which has just rebranded green-and-gold to look more Aussie for the cricket season.

And it makes me wonder where home is, and to realise that it’s more in my attitude than in my longitude and latitude. When I have my human rights in abundance, as I do in Australia, and I have the practical opportunity, as I do by God's grace, it’s a simple responsibility to say something about someone else’s. No matter the colours on the flag or the stars I see in the sky.

And it makes me wonder about the ties that bind.  Logically, there’s little probability in me – a son of migrants to the US and a migrant yet again to Oz – making a substantive difference for the people in Kyiv. And, yet, I sign the letters, I lobby the pollies, I get outraged that the media doesn’t share my outrage at kids getting beaten up by security forces... To do otherwise is to undo the emotional glue of culture and family.

And it makes me wonder about a digital world that now lets me and countless millions see matters unfold in Kyiv in live time. How in the same instant the internet makes us feel both more connected to there, and more disconnected from there. How, on the one hand, it deludes us into self-importance through the lure of status posts and likes. How, on the other hand, it humbles us as we can actually watch genuine heroism and faith in action – like the priests standing at 2am between revved-up riot police and young protestors.

And it makes me wonder about the regular lives of the folks out on the Maydan – which must truly be on hold for their worthy cause. I think of the basics – of eating, sleeping, shitting, and showering as thousands undertake the world’s biggest and coldest urban camping trip. How in moments like Maydan – in the sacrifice they require from oneself for others – we show the gracefulness of the human spirit conquering the messiness of the human body. That there is God in each of us.

I recall the story of the quiet young woman with cerebral palsy from Donetsk who has come to Kyiv to battle a corrupt regime while battling her own body. (

Her contribution to Maydan is to take the paper tags off the tea bags so they brew better. From her fragile hands for the warmth of the kids out on the plaza.

If she can be a revolutionary of peace and dignity, so I am obliged to be too. In some tiny faraway way. That we should some day share some varenyky in a free country.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Whumplings - Dumplings for White People

Whumplings” (definition: dumplings for white people).

Chapas” (definition: Chinese tapas).

Indeed, dumpling devotion is spreading and trending with the trendy. Chinese cooks have figured out that the average hipster has a wallet attached to his palette, and are catering accordingly.
"Melbourne Dumplings"

Pork & chive is now seemingly passé. Xia long bao is what haloumi was to last year’s barbeque.

And while I think unsmiling guys with neck beards and fixie bikes and skinny girls with sleeve tattoos intentionally exist to make me unhappy, I can see there are benefits of hipsterification when it comes to dumplings.

New ingredients, new cooking standards, new stuff for blog sampling… And, maybe a new way for an old dog to stop tricking himself.

Two dumpling houses – and part of me says dumplings must always be served in “houses” not restaurants – in Sydney and Melbourne are renovating and putting on edible extensions to conventional dumplings.

On a recent visit to the Melbourne place, I “over-listened” to three perfectly grungy models, talking about ‘they were like OMG gow gee – defo best ever’ and then asking their skateboarder / waiter if there were any organic options.

(Making this stuff up would make me feel even more old and obsolescent so trust me I’m not.)

The below table is laid with a few highlights from both.

Bamboo Dumpling Bar (140 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills)
  • Dumpling sampler plates available on Thursdays.
  • Edamame dumplings (eg, the salty Japanese green beans which rank as the only vegetable to inspire beer drinking). 
  • Ice cream dumplings (and don’t ask me how as some Fifth Law of Thermodynamics must be involved).

ShanDong Mama (Mid City Arcade, Shop 7, 200 Bourke Street, Melbourne)

  • Choice of three different thickness of dumpling pastry.
  • The “Melbourne Dumpling” described as a ‘new contemporary recipe inspired by Australia’s multicultural food scene – with diced prawn, calamari, mussel, fish and chicken mince together with lemon rind, olive oil, parsley and garlic.’ 

Melbourne models aside, I take my anti-cynicism pills and remind myself of my companion on the visit to the Sydney joint, which is at the back of a inner city pub. (Come to think of it: "pub-lings".)

A big red-headed bloke raised in western Sydney who likes to bounce cricket balls at other big red-headed blokes’ heads. He found and suggested the place.

Hipsterism and him are definitely not joined at the hip. He’s a ginga out for a good feed. (Well, he's actually a lot more than that, and doing lots of good, but you get the point…)

Sure, there was an era when all I could do in the old Chinese dumpling houses was point at things at Chinese diners’ tables and hide the fact that I was spearing stuff (when I wasn’t hiding the vinegar running down my shirt, that is). 

It’s the splendid stuff of my self-righteous self-narrative - the smugness of He Who Dined There First. All concentric circles leading back to me.  

The truth is I was totally anonymous in those places. I’d go to them as some weird practice of enforced aloneness.
Not so trendy after all.

I wasn’t just the sole white guy. I was the intentionally invisible guy - hiding behind a barrier of culture and language. Solitary dumpling confinement.

Now, my tribe of whitefellas is there at the tables besides me, albeit they’re usually way younger and many kilo’s behind in their development.  Now, the tribe of Chinese fellas is dishing it up to suit our elaborate palettes – and their own prosperity. 

Good on them, I say, from my place in the crowd.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

On Moving from Dumpling Taker to Dumpling Maker

This is my confession: for my first 50 years, I have been a dumpling taker and not a dumpling maker.

I have watched the making of thousands of dumplings. I have eaten that many again. I have devoted time and words to deciphering dumplings.

My virgin dumpling
But, the grand total output of my personal Dumpling Production Department has steadily hovered around zero.  I have been a dumpling pretender.

Perhaps, fear of failure. Or, perhaps, I’ve been following Billy Bragg’s lyrical advice: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again."

No, I know the real reason why. I haven’t been ready to make changes.

Picasso said: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” And so it somewhat is with making dumplings and making changes.

Inspired by the recent National Pierogi Day, last week marked my inaugural attempt to make my ancestral dumpling, the Ukrainian varenyk. (I riffed on recipes in the most comforting cookbook by the Veselka coffee shop on East 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City,

There’s an amazing amount of shape-shifting when making varenyky. First, the humble spuds go from their wobbly brown ovals to diced yellow rectangles to big spackle-like mass. This involves moving along a steady continuum of peeling, chopping, boiling, mashing, and blending with ricotta cheese and fried onion. 

As I go along, I’m reminded that, as a kid, I liked the reassuring symmetry of shapes and “making sets”. Now, in middle age, I am similarly attracted to “Physics for Dummies” in the hope of elegant and simple principles by which to make sense.

I think of the second law whereby energy can be neither created or destroyed, but can change forms and flow from one place to another. Here, I consistently apply energy to potatoes, onions, cheese, salt and pepper, and dough - and new shapes emerge.

As I move to fill the dough with the filling, I am nervous but loving how the many, the raw and the disparate become hopeful half-moons, lined in up in neat rows like entries in a nautical calendar. (Perhaps in homage to the heritage of my own heritage cuisine, I used store-bought "Double Merino" brand Chinese gow gee pastry, as dough making is still another change to come.)

I apply a delicate brushstroke of egg white and seal my varenyky, learning how much or how little filling to makes for the perfect fit. Sometimes, it’s a straight seal, sometimes a fold-over, sometimes the cheerful fence-post pattern of the fork’s tines. I learn as I go.

To get things right, I realise that there’s a certain regime that’s required. I need to be concentrated and purposeful, but I also need to have good “habits of the heart”. To feel the dense filling on the spoon, improbably heavy like mushy meteor rock. To salute the day with a nip of vodka – another potato potentate. To sense how much egg-white sealant is too much or too little, like a bird balanced on a waterlily. To keep count of how many made while not counting on a certain number to make.

I see that I need to go slow to get anywhere. I must be guided by the generousity of the experience rather than the generalities of expectation.

I look at my partner take up a pastry and some of the mushroom and sauerkraut filling I’ve also made. She gets it first go, and smiles. For her, giving seems as easy as breathing, while my own approach is asthmatic. 

For long have I been lost in the thinking rather than the doing about dumplings and life. Where to get the next one; the more exotic one; the one that no one else has had; the one that everybody else has and why shouldn’t I; the one that delivers happiness. I have let these thoughts have and hurtle me - rather than I have them and harness them.  

For me and for mine, there has been a high toll on this relentless road too often travelled.  The user is all paid out. Thankfully. 

While it’s still a struggle not to always speed ahead, I feel more ready than ever to shift down, to put on the blinker, and to exit. 

I watch my wife eat my first-ever batch of varenyky, including Dumpling #1. Something a little remarkable is happening: she is happy and perhaps I've had some role in that.

I have invested three hours of slowness; I have purposefully shaped something through time and effort; I have made good by making a change.