Mr Loo and I ventured out of the Little American City and into the street markets of Taipei. There I saw some unusual items that were exotic and new. A mass of dried bamboo leaves, tied up in bunches. A profusion of dried chestnuts, hard and wrinkled, shells removed, with flecks of brown skin still caught on them. Shrunken mushrooms and fat shrimp piled high in open boxes, all with their distinctive aromas. As we browsed the stalls he told me a story from his school days that was very similar to the following:
- The 5th day of the 5th lunar month is the anniversary of the death of Qu Yuan, a wise and learned Chinese patriot and poet who lived in the Kingdom of Chu during the Warring States. His ability at reform antagonized other court officials, who influenced the weak-willed king to dismiss and exile Qu Yuan. During the next 20 years, he traveled extensively, and put into verse what he saw and thought. Disheartened by the progressive occupation of Chu land by the State of Qin, he finally threw himself into the Mi Luo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
When fishermen heard of his suicide, they set forth in boats to look for him. Thus began the tradition of having dragon boat races at this annual festival. Legend has it that when Qu Yuan's body could not be found, his admirers threw rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river so that the sea creatures would spare the patriot's body.
We had purchased a variety of them made with fillings of shrimp, chicken, pork, scallops, Chinese sausages, and even salted egg yolks. A trace of citrus mingled with oil as they slipped down our throats trails of savory sensations blending the sweet, nutty flavors of the ingredients. My next experience with dumplings was at a potluck dinner after church in the states. Interesting, but understandably it was not the 5th day of the 5th lunar month and the sermon was not about the patriotic poet. All things considered they were not quite up my expectations.
The actual definition of the dumpling is very broad and they share a universal genesis having arrived in the present from the myriad cooks who more than likely wondered what to do with leftover scraps of pasta or bread dough. Since the physics of boiling water guaranteed a constant temperature with relatively little tending of the open fireplace that invited the addition of vegetables, it's easy to imagine that the cook simply dropped the bits of dough into the soup and made dumplings.
"Little dumplings from basket" or xiao long bao first appeared at least a century ago in Nanxiang, northwest of Shanghai. yclept says that, "Incidentally, xiao long bao are in the same family as the stuffed steamed breads (the wrapper is actually a very thin yeast dough). Jiaozi and wontons use a noodle skin instead. The ubiquitous little bundle of joy seems to be indigenous to almost every culture. From boiling and steaming to baking and frying the gastronomic records are dotted with a dozen different dumpling names. The Chinese fried up wontons millennia ago and Scandinavians supplied us with klubs. While the Germans added spaetzle and knodel, Italians served up ravioli, and Spaniards added tamales and empanadas.
It seemed as if life without dumplings was simply not worth living or was it? The Europeans explored the shadier side of dumpling theory during what is called "The Golden Age of Poisoning." The Victorians relished the idea of purchasing poisons at the local pharmacy and arsenic was the most popular choice since the white powder imitated the effects of cholera as well as food poisoning. Historian Katherine Watson did a delectably gruesome study of poisoning that began around 1752." The typical Victorian poisoning took place in a home," she says, "which was poor, but with enough spare capital to make killing worth the trouble. The typical murderer sat down to a meal with the victim. " In the 540 cases she researched there were more than 50 different toxins used. They murdered according to their means and the poor picked arsenic. In the 1840s the good citizens of Yorkshire could procure an ounce of it for a mere two pence:
- Arsenic victims would suffer pain like rats gnawing at their insides, a thirst impossible to quench, vomiting and diarrhoea...Within hours, or days at the most, death would relieve the misery, and if a doctor had been astute enough to take samples of excreted matter, the criminal process would take over. Relatives would be questioned as to what had been eaten, an autopsy would reveal an inflamed alimentary tract, perhaps burned through in some places. In court medical witnesses would arrive with glass tubes and copper slips stained with poison recovered from a victim's body to show to inquisitive jurors...
Children were also quite likely to be poisoned. Between 1863 and 1887, homicide victims (from all causes) were more likely to be children under five than all other age groups combined, and poison took its share of this grisly toll. "I'll poison you out of the road" was a threat easily understood by children of the Victorian poor.
Southern flavors with dash of history
The recipe that follows is one from the grandmother of a friend from El Paso, Texas. I would have never imagined that basil could add such a wonderful sage-like essence that complements the flavor of the chicken. It's never disappointed unless of course there weren't enough dumplings to quell the cravings for more.
- Lorri's Chicken and Dumplings
1- 4 to 5 pound boiling chicken
3 TBS sweet basil
2 cans chicken broth
1 – 5 oz can evaporated milk
1 cup butter
5 cans of Texas style biscuits
Place the chicken in a 5-quart pot, cover with water and bring to a boil for a half hour. Remove the chicken and set it aside. While the chicken is cooling add the basil, broth, evaporated milk and butter. Cut the biscuits in fourths and drop into the potage. Some salt and pepper to taste would be nice too. While the biscuits are dancing around on top of the boiling water you can pull the chicken from the bone and shred it into bite size pieces. Add it back to the stew. Cook it for fifteen more minutes to make sure the dumplings are cooked through. For classic southern style cooking serve with fried okra, turnip greens, buttermilk biscuits and apple butter for a deliciously soul warming meal.
The aroma and feel the cottony lightness of these dumplings have eventually become our family's comfort food. The globs of dough that sit atop a thick pot of stew cooked to fork-flaking perfection just beg to be bathed in butter. But whether it's dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves ready for steaming or a big pot simmering on the stove, either way, the tastes and textures of dumplings remain as fresh in my memory like a breath from a spring breeze on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month in the Little American City on the other side of the Pacific.
Xian Dumpling Dinner