"Our happiest time is to enjoy the dumpling."
Foolishly, I thought that my credentials as the Serious Eats New Jersey correspondent would impress anybody. Not so. The faculty of Montclair State University was dubious. Their seminar on Chinese dumpling history and culture turned out to be so popular that people would invent any sort of story in order to gain entry. But somehow I managed to talk my way in, and when one of the women conducting the seminar said "Our happiest time is to enjoy the dumpling," I knew I was among friends.
Montclair State might not have a culinary school, but there are food science and global education departments. And dumplings are a very important food in this state. They could be pierogies in Linden, mandu in Palisades Park, manti in Patterson, jiaozi in Edison, or samosas in Iselin. In fact, they're my nominee for the official food of New Jersey.
Of course, jiaozi was the topic last night. Two Chinese women, Yu Chang and Fenghua Xu, told the story of what appears to be their country's most popular food. We were told that jiaozi rhymes with the name of a paper currency used in China a thousand years ago, and are eaten at the New Year to symbolize having money at the change of the year—it all adds up to Chinese dumplings as a symbol of wealth and good luck.
The ladies then went on to tell us how dumplings require teamwork. After all, one person can't really make that many dumplings on their own, but a few working together can turn out thousands. They also insisted that dumplings represented the character of the Chinese people; showing an image of a dumpling, they claimed that because you couldn't tell what was on the inside from the outside, they represented a sort of Chinese national personality.
By the time they reached the practice of eating dumplings on Chinese New Year, and how it's traditionally believed that the number of dumplings you eat on New Year's Day is a good indicator of how much money you'll make in the following year, the audience was dying for some of the sample dumplings the students were making.
Finally, we got a test on the dumpling arts, and were called up to try them. When I ate the first one, I jumped back in surprise—it had the exact taste of typical Chinese home cooking; pork, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Nothing like the restaurant dumplings that most of us take for granted.
Afterwards, I gave the women a copy of my book A World of Dumplings and I noticed that they were dumbfounded by one of the photos. Which one? They were shocked by Maultaschen—they knew that dumplings were eaten everywhere in the world, but it never occurred to them that they could be square. We live and learn.
Montclair State University
1 Normal Avenue, Montclair NJ 07043 (map)
The next public culinary event at Montclair State University will be a talk and cooking demonstration by Jennifer 8. Lee, on Wednesday, April 14th, at 6:00 PM. Reservations are required. Call 973-655-4185 and if they ask, tell them I sent you. This is all part of a larger Chinese festival being held at the University. Learn more by visiting their website.