Growing up, Taili He-Brenners imagined that as an adult she would leave rituals she observed with her parents’ families behind. Shabbat dinners with her mother’s side and Lunar New Year with her father’s side were somewhat dull. “Growing up I did not care about these traditions too much. I thought I would not teach about Jewishness and Chinese history to my future children because it did not feel like it mattered.”
But COVID found He-Brenners living in the Netherlands studying for an undergraduate degree in Foreign Relations, far away from China, where she had spent her early childhood, and Israel where she lived as a teen. All of a sudden, Shabbat took on a new meaning.
He-Brenners came to the Netherlands somewhat by accident, after an Israeli friend had suggested a particular program of study at the University of Leiden in the Hauge. Far from home, she sought out other Israelis with whom to connect but people were busy and it was hard to form community.
As COVID slowed down the world, Shabbat became a time to come together. “In the pandemic, we realized how important it was to stay connected so we started with Friday dinners and holidays together. We formed a little happy family here.”
Born in Israel, as a child He-Brenners first lived in Beijing and then in Shanghai. “We moved a lot.” But every year, “we would get on a train, or get in a car, or fly; a family mission to get to my grandmother’s house in inner Mongolia to celebrate the Lunar New Year.”
Being with family was the key thing, Lunar New Year was a “cozy familiar time.” “My grandmother would make lots of dumplings. There was always a New Year’s program on television with comedy sketches, song and dance performances, and magic shows. We would wrap dumplings and watch the New Year’s countdown. Then there would be fireworks. Not just a few but all night. And if we were feeling adventurous we would go outside and light firecrackers. Then we would come back in and eat the dumplings.” On the one hand, it was wonderful and exciting, on the other hand, as a child spending a week without the internet took away from the excitement.
Creating her own community and celebrating Shabbat as a university student, He-Brenners began to understand the need for ritual and connection with people who understood her background. “I realized [tradition] is about who you are. That [connection] with the Israeli people doing Shabbat dinners together made me realize that the Chinese side also needs attention and connecting to roots. There is a limit to how people who are not Chinese can understand beyond the basics.”
Finding that connection with Chinese people was not simple. Her first attempt at community was reaching out to a local Chinese street vendor. But that led nowhere. After graduation, He-Brenners found a job at a hip Chinese restaurant that served fancy cocktails and traditional Chinese fare. There she began to connect with others who share memories of Lunar New Year celebrations and even a few who personally related to the complexities of her mixed identity.
As Lunar New Year approaches, He-Brenner is looking forward to joining her Chinese community to share good wishes and copious amounts of traditional foods. With a smile, she shares, “these are people who will relate to my fond memories of grandmother yelling at me for misshaping the dumplings.”
Vegan Dumpling with Dippings Sauces for the Lunar New Year
He-Brenner has adapted the dumplings of her childhood to work with her vegan diet. She encourages creativity. She shares, “The ratio between the veggies is set to my own preference, obviously, you can play around with the ratio. That’s the fun thing about vegan dumpling fillings, it’s really a creative playground.”
As to the dumpling wrappers, “For this recipe, I usually use store-bought dumpling wrappers. But if you’ve mastered the art of dumpling wrappers, please do that!”
- 1 can of bamboo shoots
- 1 bok choy
- 1 carrot
- Approximately 8-10 pieces of wood ear fungus (or other mushrooms if they are not available)
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 1-2 scallions
- 2 tbsp mushroom soy sauce or regular if you do not have mushroom
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- salt and white pepper to taste
- One package premade round dumpling wrappers
Making the filling:
- Finely chop the vegetables and place them in a large bowl.
- Add the spices to the mixture: salt, white pepper, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil.
- Mix well and leave it for about 2-5 minutes for the water to extract from the veggies.
- In a pan, heat up about 1-2 tbsp of vegetable oil. Pour the prepared filling onto the pan, and fry on low heat until the liquids evaporate.
- Set aside to cool.
- Place the dumpling wrappers, the filling, and a bowl of water on your work surface
- Wet the rim of the wrapper with water and place a dessert spoon size amount of filling in the center of the wrapper.
- Press the edges of the wrapper together to seal and then using your thumb and forefinger pleat the edges.
- Set the dumplings aside until you have used up the filling. The dumplings can be frozen at this stage
Cooking the Dumplings
- Heat a well seasons cast iron skillet or non-stick pan to medium.
- Put in a small amount of vegetable oil.
- Place as many dumplings as will comfortably fit without crowding in the pan. Pleated side up.
- Pour water into the pan until it reaches about a ⅓ of the way up the side of the dumpling and covers the pan.
- Let it cook covered for approximately 10 minutes on medium heat until the water is evaporated.
- Uncover and remove the pan from the head.
- Let the dumplings rest for 2-3 minutes to help the release.
- Serve immediately with dipping sauce or sauces.
There are two dipping sauces He-Brenner likes to use or even mix together sometimes.
Classic Soy Sauce and Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce
Ingredients (For one serving):
- 1 tbsp black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2-3 dashes of sesame oil
- 1 crushed garlic clove
In a small bowl, mix black vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic. That’s it! It’s ready for dipping.
Homemade Chilli Oil
- 4 tbsp chili flakes
- 2 sticks of chopped scallions
- 1-2 crushed garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
- 1-2 teaspoons salt to taste
- generous amount of vegetable oil (I tend to mess up the amount, the idea is to fully cover all the ingredients and drench them in oil; I’d say about 1 cup of oil is a good start, and from there adjust according to your own preference. If you like the chili sauce saucier, then use less oil. If you like it more oily, add more)
- In a small bowl prepare chili flakes, chopped scallions, garlic, and ground Sichuan pepper.
- Over medium-high fire, heat up the oil in a pan.
- Once the oil is nice and hot, pour it all over your ingredients, and it freshly fries them on the spot in your bowl.
- Stir in the salt and allow the chili oil to cool
This chili recipe is super simple and is great also for noodles, or any other thing you like to eat that needs a spicy kick to it!