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New York City attracts captains of industry, innovators, and creatives. It’s home to iconic skyscrapers and intricate subway tunnels, the neon lights of Times Square and delicate flora of Central Park, brick-and-mortar shops and dotcoms — and they’re all driven by the manufacturing industry.
Join Thomas Insights Editor Stephanie Nikolopoulos as she takes a "byte" out of the history and future of the Big Apple in this biweekly column.
While everyone else stress-baked banana bread during quarantine, I learned how to make Chinese dumplings. I over-stuffed flimsy dumpling wrappers with heaping spoonfuls of mushroom and cabbage, dipping my finger into a little bowl of water to seal each plump little doughy package. Then, I would pinch the sides together, rhythmically pleating the dough so it would hold tight when cooked.
One by one, I repeated the process, slowly learning not to be so greedy with the filling. As I labored over perfecting each pleat, my husband scooped, sealed, pleated; scooped, sealed, pleated. His plate quickly accumulated so many morsels they had to be transferred to a larger plate to make room for more.
“This reminds me of making dumplings with my mom,” he said, not looking up from his task. As we prepared the dumplings, he shared with me about making dumplings with his family when he was growing up.
My family was more of a “Do you want pizza or Chinese takeout?” kind of family than the kind that cooked together. And, in true New York fashion, we had Manhattan’s oldest restaurant in Chinatown — Nom Wah Tea Parlor.
As The New Yorker put it, the popular restaurant is the epitome of “retro-chic.” From its faded red awning to its Art Deco tables and walls adorned with vintage photographs, the atmosphere is charming. It’s no wonder that a few years ago, Vogue held its pre-Met Gala party here. And yet, I’ve recently learned that behind the scenes, the restaurant is a lot more tech-savvy than one might imagine.
When Nom Wah first opened in 1920, eager customers lined up down the street to get a taste of their scrumptious mooncakes, a popular treat served during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Back then, the establishment was primarily known as a bakery.
Its popularity says a lot about its quality considering its location at 13-15 Doyers Street back then had gotten the nickname the “Bloody Angle.” Keep in mind that it’s only been in more recent years that we’ve seen the Disneyfication of New York. As you may recall, the High Line was built over what used to be known as “Death Avenue.” This corner of Chinatown got its nickname because gangs used the sharp angle of the street to their advantage. Nevertheless, people were apparently willing to risk their lives for a taste of these cakes.
Today, the restaurant is one of the hottest places to grab dim sum. Wilson Tang, a former investment banker in his early 40s, took over the establishment from his uncle in 2010. Wally, his uncle, had begun working at Nom Wah in 1950. The 16-year-old immigrant worked his way up, eventually purchasing the restaurant in 1974.
When Tang took over the restaurant from his uncle, he modernized the way the business was run. He upgraded the kitchen, pivoted to a made-to-order à-la-carte menu instead of the cart service typical of most dim sum establishments, and brought in some new technology to help make one of their most popular menu items — dumplings.
"Dumplings are supposed to look like the ingot, the gold and silver pieces used as money in ancient times," Chef Kian Lam Kho (not affiliated with Nom Wah) recently explained to O, the Oprah magazine.
Similar to the way chocolate coins at Hanukkah represent the history of giving an end-of-the-year tip to itinerant workers, dumplings are culinary representations of money. Eating dumplings is like eating currency.
In other words, eating dumplings symbolically suggests prosperity.
“The belief is the more dumplings you make and eat, the more money and wealth you will make for the New Year,” Chef Thach Tran (not affiliated with Nom Wah) told Reader’s Digest.
Because dumplings need to be filled and sealed one at a time, yet can be eaten in large quantities, making them is often a family affair. Family members will usually sit down together on New Year’s Eve to craft these tasty morsels, but it’s also done year-round. While there is work to be done in preparing large quantities, it also serves as a time to bond with one another.
“Growing up, my grandma's visits to our home meant one thing: All of the dumplings. She'd drop by on a Sunday morning, bags in tow laden with ground pork, tofu, vegetables, and packages of dumpling wrappers. My family would devote the entire afternoon to filling and pleating our way through hundreds of dumplings, as my dad would boil and pan-fry batches for us to eat as we worked,” remembers Christina Chaey, associate editor for Bon Appetit.
In Have You Eaten, a short documentary by Canadian university student Lina Li, Li moves back in with her parents during the pandemic, and it’s in the process of making dumplings that she and her mother, Yan Gao, open up about their relationship with each other. The New Yorker writes: “Looking back at the six months that she spent at her parents’ house, Li sometimes thinks about the times they made dumplings together: her mother making the filling, her father kneading the dough and forming it into dumpling skin with a rolling pin, she and her sister joining the assembly line to wrap the filling into crescent packets. She is not that skilled, Li confessed, but she loves the steamy homeyness of the affair, and its connection to childhood memories.”
It’s not only an activity that cultivates unity among family members but also a way that culture is passed down through the generations. Food is at the forefront of most cultures around the world. It’s tied to our heritage, to our sense of identity. Aromas wafting through the kitchen will immediately stir up in us a sense of nostalgia. We’ll remember eating certain dishes every year for the holidays, and we’ll know that it’s not just our families doing it but other families from our ethnic communities.
These days, dumplings are treasured throughout the world. Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung, for example, has franchises in the U.S., England, and Australia, and sells 2,300,000 dumplings each month.
The world record for the largest number of dumplings eaten in one minute went to Peter Czerwinski, of Canada, who scarfed down 10 in New York back in 2016. A year later, Isaac Harding ate 30 dumplings in two minutes at the National Dumpling Eating Competition in Sydney.
With appetites like that, we need a lot of dumplings — and we need them fast!
The fastest-number of dumplings made by hand, however, is “only” 1,066, a feat accomplished by Beata Jasek, of Poland, in 2019. That’s about 17 dumplings a minute.
Although there are satisfying alternatives in Chinatown, restaurant-goers will line up for hours to get into the original Nom Wah Tea Parlor. The neighborhood has shrunk due to gentrification, immigrants returning to their homeland to pursue the Chinese Dream instead of the American Dream, and college-educated children wanting to pursue other professions instead of taking over the family business. In fact, even Tang admits his father didn’t want him to work in the restaurant business. This means that over the years while Chinese food became an American staple, there are fewer chefs trained in the culinary art of dumpling making.
To satisfy the never-ending craving of hungry customers, the restaurant has now expanded to several additional locations and is selling frozen dumplings. To accelerate production, Nom Wah Tea Parlor invested in a dumpling-making machine that can make 50 dumplings a minute.
“My guys at the Tea Parlor — that’s a dying breed,” Wilson Tang explained to Grub Street. “So if I don’t figure out how to make these with machines — how do I break down this labor component — then I’m going to get left behind.”
Insider explains that after the chefs have prepared the filling, they feed it and the dough wrapper into the extruder machine, which then has the incredible ability to fill and seal each individual dumpling at a rapid speed. The pleated dumplings and shumai still need to be made by hand, but Julie Cole says that at least for the other dumplings the machine gets “really close to our handmade product.”
You can watch the mesmerizing machine in action at Nom Wah in this video. In it, you'll see the machine lower toward a conveyor belt and then plop out a round little dumpling, like a hen laying an egg.
For a tutorial on how another type of dumpling-making machine works, see this video by Lucky Peach.
Speaking to Insider in October 2020, Tang said he hadn’t taken a salary in the past six months. Disrupted tourism and halted and limited indoor dining led to Nom Wah losing 80% of its business. The Nolita branch offered takeout and delivery but not the original outpost because, as Tang explained to The New Yorker, many of the workers in Chinatown live in intergenerational households where the virus could more easily spread.
Sinophobia further kept many customers at bay. At the same time, just like the rest of the world, the Chinatown restaurant had to deal with supply chain issues. Tang says he gets about 90% of his produce in Chinatown. However, food costs sometimes rose up to 50%. At a time when many customers were losing their own jobs and couldn’t afford to bear the weight of increased prices, the restaurant only raised prices to a maximum of 15% and absorbed the rest themselves.
That’s when Nom Wah realized restaurants can’t just be restaurants these days. They have to offer something more to customers. They have to have multiple streams of income. With this in mind, Barbara Leung, director of operations, spearheaded the logistics behind starting their direct-delivery frozen dumpling side business.
Nom Wah also started offering virtual cooking classes and meal kits so that buyers can enjoy the fun of wrapping their own dumplings at home.
This Friday marks the celebration of Lunar New Year. We’ll move from the year of the rat to the year of the ox.
Regardless of ethnicity, New Yorkers across the boroughs will be celebrating the new year. There are actually nine Chinatowns across New York City, and slated events include a lion dance, artist-led workshops, kung-fu demonstrations, and a digital Chinatown crawl.
Image Credit: szefei / Shutterstock.com
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