Dumplings in Flushing
New Yorkers have acquired an impressive array of tricks to handle the winter months. Mine is eating a dozen lamb and chive dumplings at Tian Jin Dumpling House, an unassuming stall tucked away into a basement food court in Flushing, Queens. As January turns the city into a landscape of skeletal trees and snow-lined streets, the only solace left is the promise of these dumplings.
The Chinatown in Flushing, Queens is one of many in New York City, but in recent years, it has become its own rich community. Second in size only to the Chinatown in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Flushing sits at the end of the seven train, in a borough that speaks well over 100 different languages. When the train pulls into its last stop at Main Street, passengers spill out in a mass of thick coats and winter hats. Most walk towards the grocery stores with metal carts in tow.
I walk alongside these market-goers, pulling my coat closer around my body to keep the cold air from seeping through. It does anyway. Though I have been to the dumpling stall more times than I can count, I find myself walking by the food court’s entrance without noticing it, then backtracking a few moments later when I catch a whiff of the spices. The basement’s steps descend into a maze of vendors, where dining space is scarce. The available spaces come in the form of plastic stools and aluminum card tables. Among the overwhelming displays of signage is Tian Jin’s bright red banner, marking its spot in the food court with pictures of dumplings and a list of filling combinations. Though my personal favorite is lamb and chives, there are other versions, everything from pork and cabbage to shrimp and ginger.
Within minutes of ordering, a plate of dumplings arrives, along with vinegar and chili oil for dipping. The translucent shells reveal a marbling of colors underneath. Each dumpling is a pocket of savory warmth, the softness of the dough giving way to a dense filling that blooms with flavor in every bite.
As I eat them, I think of my mom, who spends hours carefully pinching at the seams of her own handmade dumplings when I visit my home in Los Angeles. In my parents’ living room, the television blares Vietnamese music as I do my part by scooping balls of filling into the wrappers before handing them to my mom. From time to time I add too much. My mom smiles at me knowingly as she pinches off a piece of the filling, returning it to the bowl before folding the wrapper into itself.
At Tian Jin, the dumplings are eaten alongside others looking to escape the bitter cold, if only temporarily. But there is more to them than their filling warmth. Flushing is a neighborhood whose residents are connected by foods from faraway homes. My home, a small apartment in Los Angeles, comes to life in my memory when I am handed a plate of dumplings in Flushing. Elbow to elbow, puffy winter jackets and all, there is a comfort in this shared experience.