By Lorna Ye
On a frigid winter night, I was counting fireworks flashing in the sky as I stared out the narrow window of our kitchen. Sporadic sounds cracked across the city with colorful sparks.
“Wash your hands and we will make dumplings.” My mother’s voice floated from behind me.
I turned my head and saw her finalizing the filling for dumplings by adding a few drops of sesame oil to a bowl of minced vegetable and meat. With one hand stabilizing the ceramic bowl, she blended the ingredients into a thick juicy mixture with chopsticks in the other hand.
I washed my hands and helped her put an over-sized cutting board on a round table. We barely used a board of this size except when we made dumplings or steamed buns.
My brother skipped in and yelled in a voice full of excitement, “Can we set off our fireworks now?” He knelt on a metal chair next to the table, tilting his head.
“Not now,” said my mother. “Still early. Wait until it’s closer to the new year. And let your dad do it.”
“OK. But where is dad?” He sounded a little disappointed.
“He should be on the way. Let’s start making dumplings first. You two are old enough to help me,” said my mother while transferring a larger enamel bowl from the counter-top to the table. The smoothly-kneaded dough in it was for dumpling wrappers. She then fished out a thin bamboo board from the cabinet for storing finished dumplings.
“What did you put in here?” I hunched over the bowl of dumpling mixture, sniffing at and inspecting the brownish mixture.
“Ground pork, chives, napa cabbage, and an egg. I heard many farmers markets ran out of chives today. Good thing I bought some yesterday.”
“Why every family wants to use chives for dumpling filling?” asked my brother.
“Because it is the most popular vegetable for dumplings!” It seemed to be a no-brainer to me.
My brother still wanted to ask something, but the ring of the phone in the living room stopped him. My mother wiped her hands on her apron and went to answer the phone.
When she re-entered the kitchen, she told us my father called to notify us he was running late. The bakery factory where he worked was making more cakes and pastries because of the high demand of sweet treats in the following few days. The Chinese New Year celebration lasts for days and assorted bakery goods make tasty desserts and favored gifts.
My mother saw my brother’s pouted mouth and flicked his nose teasingly. “Everyone should enter the new year with a bright smile. You dad won’t be too late. Maybe when we finish making dumplings, he will be here.”
“Hope so,” my brother murmured. I knew he was thinking about fireworks.
Making dumplings is a good time for family members to chat and work together. Dumplings resemble the shape of golden nuggets, symbolizing a fortune in the coming year. They were not my favorite food, but I still enjoyed making them because of the feeling of joy and warmth that I could get from the process.
My mother split the dough into small-sized balls and nimbly rolled each ball into a round wrapper. Soon, the wrappers were spread all over the board as if clamoring for picking them up and adding filling to them.
My brother and I were doing our best to make them into dumplings. But only if we could be fast enough. Our amateur hands and clumsy fingers only allowed us to make a few unsightly ones, not to mention the uneven amount of filling in each one and the occasional leaking from the untightened wrapper edge. Those dumplings slumbered lazily on the bamboo board, giving us a good laugh.
“It’s my fault I did not teach you well how to make dumplings,” my mother said with a light laugh. She picked a few defective ones and fixed them with firm pinches on the edge, ensuring the filling wouldn’t seep out during cooking.
“Here’s how to make a good one,” she said while placing a wrapper on her left palm. After adding a spoonful of filling on the center of the wrapper, she folded the wrapper into a rough semi-circle and pinched the top edge closed with the thumb and fore-finger of her right hand. Everything seemed so effortless to her. The perfectly-shaped dumpling was settled on the right corner of the bamboo board, perky and buoyant compared to its sloppy peers.
It took me several tries to finally make one close to that. I still considered that a breakthrough, especially when my brother only set a goal of no leaking in his dumplings.
Our short-lived stress of making better-looking dumplings was soon replaced by joyous bouts of laughter as my mother told us about her experiment of sneaking a hard candy in a dumpling wrapper when she was a kid.
She also answered a question that had puzzled me — how to make sure the amount of the dumpling filling exactly matches the amount of dough for wrappers. The answer was — it didn’t matter. Her hometown’s tradition is if you have leftover of fillings, you will have good amount of extra money in the new year; if you have leftover of wrappers, you will have a lot of new clothes to wear during the next year. Based on this theory, our dumpling filling was a clear winner (I suspected my mother did that purposefully), foretelling an affluent new year.
Time flashed by when we were laughing, joking, and telling stories. Dumplings were lined up in nice, neat rows, like a well-trained troop ready to embark on their march in the midst of the ever-growing bangs and whooshes of fireworks outside.
The door creaked open and my father was back. A big smile plastered on his face, which was red and glowing from the cold weather. He was holding a box delicately wrapped in a paper bag decorated with red white checkered ribbon.
My brother dashed to hug him and muttered about him being late.
“What have I missed?” asked my father. He ruffled my brother’s hair and peered inside the kitchen, noticing the board filled with dumplings.
“I guess you were both great helpers to mom. Look what I got for you.” He set the box on the table, took off the ribbon and paper bag, and removed the cover. Inside laid alluring pastries in the shape of flower, diamond or heart, topped with golden sesames or a deep ruby-colored cherry.
“Wow, so pretty,” we exclaimed.
“Fresh out of the bakery. Choose one you like,” my father’s voice was cheerful.
Usually, we could not have snacks like this before dinner, but I guess Chinese New Year Eve could be an exception. I picked a diamond shaped pastry. It was crunchy at the surface and soft and chewy in the inner layers. As I bit into the center, tangy strawberry jam oozed out and brought a burst of rich fruity flavor to my mouth.
My mother had boiled a big pot of water, ready to cook dumplings. She gently shoveled a few batches of dumplings in the hot water with her hand. The steam from the boiling pot spread in the kitchen, misting the air and hanging on the cold window panes.
I wiped the haze off the center of a window and gazed out, fireworks blasting and blazing in the sky and lighting up the darkness. The thunderous sounds were believed to scare off evil spirit and bad lucks and welcome a prosperous new year.
Behind the well-lit windows of numerous buildings, millions of families like ours were savoring the simple joy of gathering together and making wishes for the new year.
As my father set off fireworks, a gleaming spark soared to the sky, erupting at the peak with a sudden flare of vibrant light and colors. At the same moment, I made my new year wish and hoped the heart-warming feeling would remain with me forever.
© 2019, Lorna Ye. All Rights Reserved