The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays in Chinese tradition. As this festive day arrives, we are reminded how one of the oldest and richest cultures in the world has influenced our own. And what better way to celebrate than to share our love for Chinese cuisine?
In this Lunar New Year special, we catch up with two of Australia’s top Chinese dumpling making teachers, Lou Wong of Dumpling Mania and Angie Chong of The Humble Dumpling. Each shares her own story about growing up as a Chinese national in Australia, upholding and sharing family traditions, the role of food in their home life – plus what they’ve got in store in their workshops to welcome the Year of the Fire Rooster! Also, subscribe to our newsletter to receive a copy of Lou and Angie’s favourite recipes. A link to subscribe also appears at the end of this feature. Enjoy!
“Two of Melbourne’s best dumpling makers meet to eat… yes, dumplings.” Image and caption by Angie Chong
We begin with Lou Wong, a Melbourne-based teacher and proud owner of Dumpling Mania. Lou teaches at some of the best cooking schools in Australia, including South Melbourne Market Cooking School, Relish Mama, Trupp Cooking School, as well as pop-up workshops for the Centre for Adult Education and Made in Japan Tablewares.
Hi Lou, can you share with us what was it like growing up in a Chinese family?
Lou Wong in one of her workshops
I suppose every Chinese person says that being Chinese means being obsessed with food. It’s hardwired in our genes. China is a country that has periods in its history in which there were hardship, including shortages of food. This meant they had to be inventive about food. My father used to joke that the Chinese “eat everything that flies except a plane, everything with four legs except a table, everything that swims except a submarine!” So I guess I’m not unusual in that sense.
My mother married young and was taught cooking techniques by her mother-in-law, a woman who was illiterate, but a very accomplished cook. Over the years, other women would then teach her. Being Chinese, you have all these really strange relationships – like my father’s godfather’s daughter-in-law taught my mother! She had lived in Hong Kong and studied with the masters. She shared what she learned with my mother.
The Chinese community I grew up in was a tight community. When there were family gatherings, there was so much cooking going on that they would set up cooking stations on top of the washing machine in the garage! We would have so many people over that we had folding tables in the garage. And that was perfectly acceptable – cooking and eating your meal in the garage!
When did you start to have a hand at dumpling making?
Lou’s parents when they first came to the U.S.
One of my earliest memories is of the times when once a year, my mother would have us up early to make dumplings. It was an act of gratitude for her because she was making them for this older couple who had helped my parents when they first moved to the USA.
So that was my first experience in making dumplings. But recently, my mother told me that I wasn’t actually making dumplings at age 4, but that she had given me a ball of dough and set me on a table to get me out of the way! It was when I was older and more coordinated that she began to teach me how to pleat dumplings.
Were you always keen on being involved in the kitchen?
Lou’s signature Chinese Chive Dumplings
Let me tell you right now, I am actually the least likely person to be teaching dumpling making. I never considered myself a good cook. People often assume with their comment “You must be a really good cook,” and I correct them with “No, I am a good dumpling maker.”
In our upbringing, we were all expected to help in the kitchen. Because both my parents had jobs that were either at night or shift work, my mother was often dictating the instructions from the couch, because she was tired from her work. So it was like “Get the bok choy and wash it.” And then she’d go, “Okay, now get the soy sauce out”. And we didn’t use measuring spoons at all because she’d give us measurements as in “the size of your thumb” or “a piece like the size of the palm of your hand”.
What do you enjoy the most out of being a dumpling maker and teacher?
I enjoy being around people who share my “mania” about dumplings. I’m also a pretty blunt person, and in a way, teaching dumpling making brings out a side of me that’s softer and nicer? Haha! I hear people say things about me that I’ve never heard before like, “Oh, Lou is so patient,” and I’m like, “Really?!” So whether people realise it or not, they’re actually contributing to my therapy!
Lou in one of her Deluxe Dumpling Mania Masterclasses through WeTeachMe
Most important to me though is that the conversation about dumpling making opened up an avenue of communication between my mother and I. It brought us closer together. When we go to have yum cha, we sometimes take apart our dumplings to see what the ingredients are! There have been times during one of her visits when we would be having a conversation about dumplings and she’d say, “Should I show you now?” And that could happen at 11pm. She follows me on Instagram and yes, she does give me unsolicited critique. “You need to chop that finer”, or the “batter must’ve been too thick!”
Finally, what have you got planned for Lunar New Year?
Lou waiting for the traditional Lion Dance troupe to come to her class
This Chinese New Year, I am teaching several dumpling classes, including my “Celebrate the Dumpling” Master class. I hand out the red envelope (called Hong Bao in Mandarin) to every dumpling maker. The giving of the red envelope is a tradition in Chinese culture and it symbolises a gesture of expressing wishes for prosperity and good health.
On Chinese New Year Day, there will be a spectacular lion dance performance of the Hong De Lion Dance Association along with a drummer whose loud drumming sets the rhythm of the dance along with the musicians playing a gong and cymbals to frighten away evil spirits. I’ll be ready for them with a Hong Bao and a lettuce leaf to “feed the lion”. I’ve been teaching Celebrate the Dumpling for the Year of the Goat, Year of the Monkey and now this Year of the Rooster at South Melbourne Market Cooking School. I also am teaching a Beginner’s Workshop called “Made By You”, 12th Feb or 18th Feb, which is offered via weteachme.com
Angie Chong of The Humble Dumpling is the daughter of celebrity chef and author Elizabeth Chong. Angie studied horticulture and later designed Victoria’s first fully-accredited Asian cookery course at William Angliss Institute of TAFE, where she taught for about 20 years. Through her business, she returns to her roots and it is her way of sharing with others that experience and tradition.
Hello Angie! Can you share with us today what it was like growing up as a Chinese in Australia?
Well, I’m what you would call an ABC, which is an Australian-born Chinese. My mother was Chinese, of course; she was born in China and came to Australia when she was a very young girl. And my father was also Chinese, but born in Australia.
I am one of four children and was raised in a very happy home. I think, growing up in a fairly traditional Asian family, it was very normal for the children to be in the kitchen helping to prepare the evening meal. We each had our own tasks.
When you first start in the kitchen, when you’re about three or four, the very first job that you are assigned is the most important job: washing the rice. You’re washing the rice for the whole family which is the most important meal. It doesn’t matter what else you’re eating – might be vegetables or fish – but if the rice is not prepared correctly, you’re not going to enjoy the food. It’s water play but it’s also teaching children from the very early age.
Angie with a plate of dumplings and her freshly harvested crops
What do you remember learning from that kind of experience?
Well, you learn to respect rice. You learn to cook it but you realise how it’s very important and not to waste it. You prepare it with reverence and you learn responsibility because you’re doing this for the family. Plus, I find that there’s a lot of joy in doing it together.
And because my mother has been a cooking teacher, a consultant and a writer of cookbooks for 60 years, I’ve just grown up learning from her about how to respect and love food.
Why the particular fondness for dumplings?
Angie’s plate of classic dumplings
For me, dumplings are family food. They bring back childhood memories of being with family and sharing food together. I remember, every weekend, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins – we all ate together and dumplings were a very typical thing that we would eat. So if you’ve got a lot of people to feed, then everybody gets in and makes them!
What is your philosophy behind teaching dumpling making? Does Chinese tradition have a role in it?
I set up my business a year and a half ago and I hold most of my classes at my home. My philosophy is all about the sharing of food. And so the idea behind it is: “This is home. This is a safe place. This is a warm and open place.” And I’m just using ordinary equipment and tools and ingredients, just like anybody can, in my kitchen.
I set up my business the way because, even outside the Chinese tradition, I have always understood and appreciated the joys of sharing food together – particularly, preparing and eating food together. For Asian families, it is so very, very important. For most Chinese people, food is central to their lives. Food and family. So if you want to get together with your family, it’s usually around food.
Angie in one of her home classes
I remember when I was about 9 or 10, it was the first time that I went to my girlfriend’s house after school and we were playing in her bedroom. And then I said, “Shouldn’t we be in the kitchen?” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Because it’s dinner time and we need to be helping to prepare for dinner.” She said, “No, my mum makes dinner.” For me, that was very strange, especially at that age, because if you eat food, then you should be in the kitchen helping, in some way. Dinner time, the preparation of the food, and then the eating together – is a really important time to talk to your parents about your day at school, or talk to your siblings about things – to really be together. And I realise that not everybody has had that same cultural experience. Even in the Chinese community of today’s day and age, a lot of that is lost too.
Angie and her students having fun at a workshop.
So I would take it for granted that, “Yeah! Of course we eat together.” Or ”My door’s open. Come and have a meal with me.” It’s easy for me to make a meal and I realise that a lot of people did not have what I had, and wanted some of that. They wanted to share that experience. So that’s what my business, in part, seeks to achieve. It is a very traditional Asian thing to come together to share food – and so I’m sharing that beyond, obviously, my Asian-Chinese traditions.
Lastly, what do you have in store for us in your Lunar New Year special workshop?
Oh yes! I will talk about the tradition of Chinese New Year and I will talk about the tradition of what it means to be in a New Year. Because it’s really significant for Chinese people. In the West, New Year would mean making your resolutions but for the Chinese, it’s very much more significant: The year has finished, and that it’s a very, very important time to reflect on the year that has gone, to think more deeply of what sort of year it has been, what of your relationships. It’s reflecting on where you’re going as an individual. It’s a good time to seriously pause.
Yusheng (Raw Fish Salad)
So I will talk about that tradition in the workshop and I will also have some special food. I will be doing something with duck; and I will also be making a special Chinese New Year Salad called “Yu Sheng” (raw fish salad) It is always made on Chinese New Year to symbolise wealth, health and prosperity for the coming year. In particular, the workshop will be a little more fancy!
Want to get dibs on some classic recipes for Chinese New Year?
Lou and Angie have happily shared their favourite recipes to our dear readers in time for Chinese New Year. Sign up to our newsletter to receive a copy of their delicious recipes you can easily make at home!