Tina Hsia Yao
Tina Yao was born in a war zone in 1942.
The daughter of a major general for the Chinese Nationalist Party, the first few years of her life were spent moving from place to place, constantly on the run for safety. When she was seven, her family had no choice but to flee their home in Sichuan, China, and relocate to the island of Taiwan.
Before graduating with a degree in Chinese literature in Taiwan, she married her husband, William, an accountant for Pan America in the United States. After graduation, she moved to the United States with him and settled into a new life in Queens, New York. Soon after arriving, she began working toward obtaining another degree, this time in secondary education. A college degree was a priority for her: She wanted to model the importance of education to her children, despite the challenges of obtaining a degree in a foreign language and system.
The turmoil of Tina’s childhood seems to have shaped her into a woman who doesn’t waste time. Always seeking progress and betterment, she found herself unfulfilled by office work and instead began buying a number of businesses. She owned a real estate firm and dabbled in the restaurant industry — at one point, she even owned a pizzeria. She was always willing to take on a new investment, manage success, and then move on to the next opportunity. Her children, Nancy and James, both recognize how driven their mother has always been, putting her true loves — literature, poetry, and art — aside to pursue avenues that would provide better models for them.
Interestingly, her daughter feels her mother’s true identity manifests in her cooking. When Tina prepares food, it is with intention and an artist’s eye. To watch Tina make dumplings is to see a true art form. Her fingers, quick and nimble, create uniform, perfect pleats on every identical piece. She patiently lines up the beautiful purses — almost too beautiful to eat — until there are rows of hundreds. Then she carefully drops them into the boiling water, gingerly swirling the water with her chopsticks until they plump to the surface, ready for her family to devour.
Now retired, Tina spends her days attending art and pottery classes, writing poetry, and spending time with her grandchildren (and she still flips investment properties!). Nancy is convinced if her mother hadn’t always been so ambitious about achieving the “American dream,” she would have been a celebrated artist or poet. Instead, Tina worked tirelessly to provide opportunities for her children. Working hard to get what you want out of life is very important to Tina, and she feels Chinese people are instilled with a determined work ethic from a very young age.
Tina looks to philosophy for daily guidance. Ever since she was a child, she has studied many Chinese philosophers, and she relies on their teachings to get her through difficult periods in her life. She feels particularly drawn to a quote from Confucius: “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” Simply put by Tina, “Put my heart in the right place, then I can serve my family, then my country, and then I can change the world!” Her words, her food, and her outlook on life all fit together in perfect harmony.
Serves: 8 to 10 (makes 80 dumplings)
Prep: 35 minutes
Total: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Wheat is a staple crop in the northern region of China, so the cuisine of the north is known for dumplings and noodle dishes. In Tina’s village, the women would sit for hours making these dumplings in preparation for the new year, eating and gossiping as they worked. Tina makes her thin dumpling skins with just two ingredients: flour and water. Then she stuffs each skin with a savory pork filling that she mixes up with chopsticks, and she seals each one with perfect, identical pleats in the blink of an eye. Tina’s secret for super-moist dumplings is her addition of soft tofu. She feels pork here in the United States is too lean, so she adds the tofu to soften the filling and give it a juicier bite.
This recipe takes a bit of elbow grease, but if you are simply serving it as an appetizer, you’ll be left with plenty of extra that you can pop in the freezer. They are so delicious and versatile — try them steamed, fried, or even boiled in your favorite soup!
For the dough
- 4 cups (500 g) all- purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 cup (240 ml) warm water
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce, plus more for serving
- 2 tablespoons white wine
For the filling
- 1 head Napa cabbage
- 1 pound (455 g) ground pork
- 1/4 cup (60 g) minced soft tofu
- Soy sauce
- Hot chili oil
Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the center of the dough circle and fold in half. Pinch the edges together into small pleats between your thumbs and forefingers.
Continue until the edges are fully sealed. Practice makes perfect!
- Make the dough. Place the flour in a large bowl and create a well in the center. Pour the water into the well, then, with your hands, incorporate the flour with the water and knead until a ball forms. Continue kneading for 20 minutes, until the dough is perfectly smooth and round. Allow the dough to rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
- Make the filling. Slice the cabbage thinly. Combine the cabbage with cold water to cover in a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until the cabbage is soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and let cool.
- Combine the cabbage with the pork, tofu, ginger, scallions, soy sauce, and white wine in a large bowl.
- Assemble the dumplings. Flour your work space and two sheet pans. Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces. Keep 3 pieces covered with plastic wrap while working with the fourth. Use your hands to roll one piece into a log about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter and 20 inches (50 cm) long. Pinch off 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces and flatten each with the palm of your hand. You should have 20 pieces.
- Use a rolling pin (a short, thin rolling pin is best) to roll out the edges of the dough to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) in diameter. Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the center and fold in half, encasing the filling, then pinch the edges together until fully sealed — practice makes perfect! Place the dumplings on the prepared baking sheets.
- Repeat with the remaining dough and filling to make approximately 80 dumplings.
- Boil a large pot of water and drop in 10 to 15 dumplings at a time. Cook until they rise to the top, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Serve with soy sauce and hot chili oil to taste.
Reprinted with permission from Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women by Anna Francese Gass, photos by Andrew Scrivani and published by Harper Design, 2019.