Written by Sandy Di Yu: @hejsandy, @kitsche, sandydiyu.com
"I want to live in a giant bao, and it would be warm and it would smell so good. I'd crawl in, and it would fly me home, and when I arrive I'd eat my way out." Sigi says this dreamily, her lips curved upwards, indulging in fantasy. She turns to me and asks, "If you could be inside any food, what would it be?"
I consider the question. A giant bao sounds heavenly, but I don't want to repeat her answer. I tell her that I don't know. I'll have to think about it.
She tells me that her housemate's response was a type of Amish soup with doughy dumplings and potatoes floating about. If they lived in this soup, they would swim from one dumpling to the next taking bites of these chewy warm pieces of pure bliss.
I adore that answer, and I think about living inside a dumpling, not floating in soup but steamed or boiled, like the ones from my childhood, little packets of flavour filled with ginger and Chinese leek, jiaozi in my mother's native Mandarin. Then I wonder if that might be too singular. I crave variety; I always have. Won't I get sick of that one dumpling?
Silvia comes in with tea, and Sigi turns to her to ask the same question.
"What would I live in? Hmm… definitely something sweet. A mochi!"
We delight in her answer, then we talk about what it would be like to be flown all the way home in a giant bao, steamy and aromatic, a form of transportation that would keep us safe and warm and become a midnight snack for when we arrived.
That night, no food items transported us home from Silvia’s. We took the bus, the train, the tube, and our feet across town. Our journeys weren't very warm and they didn't smell very nice, but we made it back safely. I was used to these journeys, living such a distance away from the friends that occupied the far corners of the metropolis.
We all lived some way away from one another, but occasions brought us together at regular intervals. These occasions were sometimes filled with art and at other times with food. At the best of times, it was brimming with both.
"As we spoke, we discovered and rediscovered that flour and water worked better in moments of conviviality and that everything was tastier when it was well-deserved."
One such get-together happened during the colder months between the two lockdowns in the UK. I invited Silvia and Sigi to my place to make dumplings and discuss the possibility of putting together an exhibition. I had a recipe or two in mind, and we were giddy with restless creative energy that had been brewing in the long months of isolation.
We got our hands sticky with raw ingredients amalgamating into new creations as we talked about our grandmothers and the archetypes they inhabit. We mimicked them in the narratives we conjured up about domestic labour and working from home. As we spoke, we discovered and rediscovered that flour and water worked better in moments of conviviality and that everything was tastier when it was well-deserved. Dough is a magical thing, changing in texture and elasticity as our fingers and palms manipulated it over and over. We trialled and errored our way to doughy perfection, coloured the dough with beetroot juice and spinach, and we combined aromats and vegetables into tangy emulsions. We filled the dough wrappers that were freshly rolled and cut, and I tried in my incompetent way to explain how my mother and grandmothers folded them into cute little parcels.
When we took them off the stove and removed the lid from the steamer, the performance of the fragrant steam filling the air before dispersing to reveal perfectly cooked dumplings left us stirring in awe. We dipped each bite into freshly made ponzu sauce, bright with citrus, and dumpling dip made of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar, sprinkled with chopped coriander leaves and scallions. I had made a sweet warming mulled concoction of sake, Chinese pear and five spice, which we sipped along with our meals. We ate until our bellies were round and full, and even then there were tons of dumplings left. I bagged the leftovers up for them to take home, the perfect reheatable lunch for a lazy weekend. The dumpling feast had come to an end, but even in memory it remains satisfying, the way only a plentiful meal can be.
Months later, on my way home from Silvia's, after Sigi asked us her delicious question about living inside of food, I thought about our dumpling feast, the collective fervour involved in creating a meal and the stories that folded into the dough, as we shared words about events both big and small. Of all the food I've had the pleasure of consuming, I think I'd want to live in that dumpling feast. Not a single dumpling, but a huge collection of dough mounds, thinly rolled, filled with diverse ingredients, folded into an endless variety of shapes and steamed to perfection. In this village of dough tents, each would be filled with savoury succulent mushroom varieties (king oyster, shiitake and button), or else spicy with briny homemade kimchi. A unifying base of scallions, garlic, sweet carrot, bamboo shoots and fresh ginger, oh so much fresh ginger, mixed with a good few spoonfuls of sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and coriander stems chopped into tiny green dots would weave punchy flavour into every bite. Maybe we'd even have a few meaty ones for the carnivores among us. There would be long strips of thinly sliced ginger in rice vinegar next to pools of ponzu and dumpling sauce.
Most importantly, it would be inhabited with friends and loved ones. We'd all gather around eating one giant dumpling after the other, and sharing a meal would always be on the menu. I wouldn't need it to fly me home, because I'd already be home, happily sauntering around (and eating) my tasty village made up of a dumpling feast.
What about you? If you could be inside any food, what would it be?
Sandy's piece was originally published in Issue 4: Feast. Pick up a copy of the magazine today: