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New Year's Promises, Wrapped in Gold

Long ago, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there was a restaurant named Chun Cha Fu. My family went there whenever we could, and I loved it as if it too were my family: the booths with their torn red leather, the smiling waiters in their ill-fitting tan jackets, the starched napkins that looked and smelled like fortune cookies.

Every time we went, my sister and I asked for fried dumplings, guotie. The wait always felt too long, but the thrill of each first bite remains with me 30 years later. When I close my eyes, I can taste the shattering-crisp, gilded dumpling wrapper, the scalding, soy-scented pork, the heat spreading through my body as I tried to breathe politely around a steaming mouthful. There was much to love about Chun Cha Fu, but it was the dumplings that drew us back again and again.

Many years later, I learned that dumplings — which are known generically as jiaozi — are a traditional treat for Chinese New Year. Shaped like the gold ingots once used in China as currency, they are said to hold the promise of prosperity. My first reaction, though, was equal parts disbelief and trepidation: "Imagine! Only eating dumplings once a year."

Action swiftly followed, as it does in cases like these, and I suddenly needed to learn to make them — daily, if need be. Most of the ingredients — napa cabbage, pork, dumpling wrappers — were easily found at the supermarket. As to the garlic chives, the Chinese leeks that give the dumplings their distinctive flavor, my Aunty Sen dug some up from her garden for me to plant in mine. "They spread like weeds!" she cautioned, ensuring that I would never again find myself in want for garlic chives, or dumplings, again.

In time, my fingers mastered the simple folds and pleats, and as I sit with friends and family enclosing the filling in its round wrappers, my dumplings look to me like hundreds of tiny stuffed wallets, each filled with the secret promise of all good things.

The secret spreads quickly, though. Once the dumplings hit the hot oil, the perfumed steam steals across the house, and people start to drift downstairs without really knowing why. After the dumplings have turned a burnished gold and begun to stick to the side of the pan — guotie means "pot sticker" — we tip a little water into the pan and put the lid on to capture the steam.

The dumplings pop and bubble ostentatiously, impossible to ignore. When they are done, their thin wrappers are translucent, a tantalizing window into what lies ahead.

Although it is anything but traditional, these days I like to make dumplings in solitude, too. When the house is quiet, I take hoarded batches of uncooked dumplings out of the freezer to thaw. Soon they are singing in their cast-iron pan, whose face is as round and dark as the invisible new moon that marks the lunar new year.

Wreaths of steam rise like clouds of memory. My next child, who will be born when the garlic chives blossom, stirs within me as if recalling the happy meals of a past life. To once eat perfectly cooked jiaozi is to crave them forever, and to long to return home where, no matter what else may happen, someone loves you enough to make dumplings for you again.

Chun Cha Fu, with its dragons and colored lights, is long gone, buried in the 1970s with many of its dimly lit, cocktail-drenched peers. Families change from year to year, with new faces replacing the old. But when my children eat dumplings, I hope they will feel rich as we once did — rich with memory and hope, the mingled taste of promises kept for one more year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe,NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.