FLUSHING, N.Y. -- Growing up in Taiwan, Tina Liu Thompson rolled and folded dough with her mother twice a month to make dumplings, a staple of the family's diet.
Fifteen years later, as a scientist living in the U.S. with a husband and a nine-year-old son, she still feeds her family dumplings frequently -- but now they come out of a bag she buys in the frozen-food aisle of her grocery store here in Queens' sprawling Chinatown. She makes fresh dumplings by hand just once a year, to mark the Chinese New Year.
"You can't be too picky," says the 40-year-old Mrs. Thompson. "You have to take what's available."
Machines are bringing Chinese dumplings -- those succulent morsels of meat and vegetables wrapped in a thin, pasta skin -- to the masses, affecting the rituals of Chinese-Americans and making dumplings a staple among many non-Asian families here. What used to be a rare treat in a Chinese restaurant is now, like pizza, an everyday meal that busy families can pop into the microwave.
Though machine-made dumplings have been around since the 1950s, for a long time few consumers bought them. Freezer-burned and filled with fatty meat, these dumplings often fell apart during cooking. But in recent years, better equipment has honed the machine-made dumpling -- so much so that many Chinese-American families are abandoning the ancient custom of dumpling making, to the chagrin of stalwart traditionalists.
Even Martin Yan, star of the U.S. television cooking show "Yan Can Cook," keeps bags of machine-made dumplings handy so he can pull them out of the freezer when he doesn't have time to cook.
"For the average person, I don't think they can tell the difference," Mr. Yan says.
That worries some dumpling devotees. "It's certainly contributing to the total deterioration of what the true dumpling is about," says Chinese cookbook author Grace Young. Dumplings are about art and quality of life, as much as food, she explains. "There is a real joy in making them. The dough is silky like a baby's bottom. That is something we have lost in our culture -- the tactile feeling of making something soft and delicate."
A few remain true. Gemei Zhang, a 48-year-old working mother of two who emigrated to the U.S. from Shandong province in Northern China, where dumplings are a specialty, refuses to buy the prepackaged kind. "The skin is not the same," she says. "The center is thick, the edges thin." So she still spends at least three hours a month wrapping some 200 dumplings by hand in her home in Milpitas, Calif.
Usually boiled or pan-fried, a good dumpling has "bite." The dough is chewy, yet tender, and the filling juicy. Making her own also allows Mrs. Zhang to fill them with anything she pleases, such as leeks and noodles. Most of all, she hopes to pass down to her daughters the value of a tradition that brings the family around the table to spend time together. It's important, she says. "It's for the spirit."
Still, machine-made dumplings, which are cheap and easy to fix, have undeniable appeal in today's fast-paced society. "People are still very lazy," says Jason Hong, a vice president of marketing at 99 Ranch Supermarkets Inc., a Buena Park, Calif., chain of 21 Asian grocery stores in which dumplings are the top-selling frozen food. "They like dumplings because they boil them in water, and 10 minutes later they can eat dinner."
Dumpling makers estimate the typical Chinese family buys one to two bags of the frozen fare a week. Sales of frozen dumplings, or potstickers, as they're also known, are growing by 10% a year in the U.S., with about $40 million in sales last year, food industry officials say. At Asian grocers, a bag of 25 dumplings sells for less than $3.
The Chinese dumpling became popular in the second century A.D. when Chang Chung-ching, a famous medical doctor in Honan province, fed them to the sick as a healing remedy, according to historian William Hu. Since then, dumplings have graced the tables of emperors and are devoured at breakfast, lunch and dinner, recalling an old Chinese saying, "When it comes to good things to eat, there is nothing better than dumplings."
Non-Asians increasingly agree. At the discount chain Costco Wholesale Corp., shoppers can buy a bag of 50 frozen potstickers for about $8. Dumplings rank among the Top 10 frozen foods sold in Costco's Southern California stores.
Alex Rogers, a 30-year-old pediatrician in Rochester, N.Y., eats chicken dumplings once or twice a week, chowing down on 10 at a sitting. He makes sure to keep his freezer stocked with at least six bags from the discount chains. "It's a very easy one-step meal," he says.
While the first dumpling-making machine was made in China in the late 1950s, it was the Japanese who perfected the machines. After developing a craving for dumplings -- which they call gyoza -- while in China during World War II, the Japanese began building and exporting dumpling machines about 30 years ago.
But they were slow to catch on. Many Chinese-Americans initially spurned machine-made dumplings because they didn't taste or look homemade, lacking the delicate folds of the handmade kind.
But then the Japanese began coating machine parts with slick Teflon and soft silicon rubber to make dumplings with thinner skins and with gentle creases that mimic handmade. Priced at about $160,000, a typical machine can churn out up to 18,000 dumplings an hour, compared with the 200 an hour one restaurant worker can make by hand.
The latest machines are getting even closer to handmade, and are being snatched up by Chinese restaurants and food manufacturers that have a hard time finding skilled dumpling makers. Three months ago, Twin Marquis Inc., a Brooklyn, N.Y., noodle maker, bought a $70,000 model called the "Gyoza Robott" by Japak Industries Inc. The machine presses dough and a pork and black-mushroom mixture into a crescent mold. Fat dumplings, just like Mom's, plop one by one onto a conveyor belt at a rate of about 4,000 an hour.
U.S. food makers have made their own improvements, including offering a wider variety of flavors. At Asian grocers, it's not uncommon to have more than a dozen choices. After hiring a Beijing chef as a consultant two years ago, Wei-Chuan U.S.A. Inc., of Bell Gardens, Calif., expanded its dumpling line to 15 flavors, including pork and cilantro, and lotus root and chicken.
Robert Liu, a 42-year-old advertising executive in Torrance, Calif., and a dumpling aficionado, isn't crazy about the shift to machine-made dumplings, but he's learning to live with it. The handmade variety, though, remains his ideal, and he has a wish for his two sons: "I want them to find a good Chinese girl who knows how to make a good dumpling."
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