Wen Zhou is the founder and CEO of the multi-million-dollar fashion brand 3.1 Phillip Lim, where everything stops for lunch. "My mom and dad insist that I eat lunch with him, my dad, because we work together, every single day," she said.
Every day her father, Xin Zhou, leaves their office in lower Manhattan around 10:00, and travels to his home in Queens – "My mom will have prepared our lunch. He picks it up, brings it back on the subway" – and returns, an hour-and-a-half round trip.
"And then we'll have lunch every single day at 12:30," Zhou said. "It's so important for him to be able to bring us lunch. I think that's a way my mom expresses her love for us.
"You know, the way we say hello is, 'Have you eaten?'"
"Have you eaten? – it's a way of greeting people," said Lei Ping, an assistant professor of China studies at the New School in New York. "And you can see how relevant food is in people's everyday life in China."
And for Chinese families around the world, like the Zhou family, dumplings are an everyday staple.
Correspondent Kelefa Sanneh asked, "What are the dumplings? Is that the appetizer? Is that the main course? Is that something on the side?"
"That's the best part about dumplings: It is anything you want this to be," Zhou replied. "It's breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks."
Dumplings can be found in most every cuisine – from Italian raviolis to Indian samosas, Polish pierogies to Spanish empanadas. But Chinese dumplings may have been the first.
For the Zhou family, their go-to dumpling is pork and cabbage, pan fried – the same recipe Wen's parents made when she was a little girl.
Wen Zhou was born in a small village in China. In 1985, when she was 12 years old, she and her family moved to New York's Chinatown. Her mother, Shan, worked long hours as a seamstress; her father made thousands of dumplings each week as a cook in a Chinese restaurant.
Their skills show in their dumplings; her mother's, delicate with intricate pleating. And her father's? "As you can see, my dad is quick, perfection. Every single thing is uniform," said Zhou.
And in demand, especially now as Chinese New Year celebrations begin. "Chinese New Year usually is also called the 'Lunar New Year' in Asia," said Ping, "and the Chinese New Year is one of the biggest celebrations and festivals in China, probably also around the world now."
Among the New Year traditions, Ping said, food takes a central place: "We call it 'lucky foods' – for instance, noodles, dumplings, right? Noodles usually would represent longevity. Dumplings are very interesting, because the shape of the dumpling looks like the ancient currency."
Traditionally, Ping said, dumplings also provided warmth during cold winters in northern Chinese cities like Beijing.
In southern China, the most common dumpling is made with shrimp wrapped in a translucent rice dough. At Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-starred restaurant, these Hong Kong-style dumplings are a specialty.
And at Wen Zhou's house, introducing newcomers is part of the fun.
"It's more difficult than it looks, right?" said Zhou, as Sanneh tried to pick up pointers from her mother.
"No, it's exactly as difficult as it looks!" Sanneh laughed. "I did not for a second look at this and think, 'This looks like something I could do.'"
Wen's teenage son, Zen, and daughter, Ming, are more than happy to eat their grandparents' dumplings. Maybe one day they'll make their own … but not today.
Sanneh asked Ming, "I'm wondering if you might be the person to pick up the baton for the new generation and master the art of making dumplings?"
"I've mastered the art of boiling frozen dumplings, but that's about it for now!" she replied.
For more info:
- Lei Ping, assistant professor of China Studies, The New School, New York City
- Tim Ho Wan Dim Sum Restaurants
- Wen Zhou, 3.1 Phillip Lim
Story produced by Mary Raffalli.