I celebrated my first Chinese New Year in college. I had been studying Mandarin for a few months when my teacher, Li Duanduan (or Li Laoshi — Teacher Li — as we called her), told us to mark our calendars – on the lunar new year, the entire Chinese department would be meeting at lunchtime for a mandatory celebration. As the date approached, we began a long series of preparations for the festival: students were paired up and given skits to perform at the party, professors broke out their best calligraphy to make decorative banners covered in wishes of luck and fortune for the coming year, and everyone trekked back and forth to Chinatown for boxes of tangerines and sweets.
The morning of the party, Li Laoshi invited us to help her with the last thing: making dumplings. A few of us met her in a common room down the hall from the Chinese department’s office, which had been decorated with red ribbons and strings of fake fireworks. Gathered around a long wooden table, we watched her take a round dumpling wrapper, place a spoonful of a filling of chicken, scallions, shiitake mushrooms, and jicama in the center, then pleat and crimp the edges until she had a perfect crescent-shaped dumpling.
Then it was our turn. Our first attempts were almost comically bad; the dumplings’ skins split most of the time, spilling the filling before we’d even finished them, and the few that we managed to keep whole looked like uneven lumps of clay. Still, we pressed ahead: soon we had trays full of dumplings that, while not as beautiful as the dozens of perfect versions Li Laoshi had produced in the same period, would probably hold together. As the party guests began to arrive, Li Laoshi scooped up the dumplings and disappeared, only to bring them back just a few minutes later, perfectly boiled. Everyone dug in, devouring the dumplings – the pretty ones and the not-so perfect.
After that first dumpling party, I’ve made sure to throw another every Chinese New Year. I make a few fillings, gather friends around my kitchen table, and teach them how to bao jiaozi (wrap dumplings). I use Li Laoshi’s chicken filling every year, but I’ve also added other recipes that I’ve found, from traditional pork and chive versions to vegetarian fillings made with pressed tofu and an assortment of vegetables. I’ve even experimented with other kinds of dumplings, including sweet yuanxiao, made of a mixture of ground nuts and sugar rolled in glutinous rice flour and boiled into sweet, chewy treats, a traditional part of New Years celebrations in China.
To round out the spread, I serve cold vegetables dishes like quick-pickled cucumber or Mongolian-style cabbage salad, both of which are easy to make ahead of time, and I set out a bowl of tangerines which are a traditional good luck food because of their resemblance to gold coins. When everything is ready, we sit down to a dinner – one that everyone appreciates all the more because of the work and fun that went into making it.
Georgia Freedman is a freelance writer living in New York City. She is a contributing editor to SAVEUR.