It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m standing in Mary Yau’s kitchen in her home on West Earle. Mary is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger, although we’ve met before at one of her pop-up dinners in the Village of West Greenville. She is, after all, the eponymous Mary of Mary Dumpling.
Hot Pockets // Mary Yau creates homemade dumplings in the style of her Chinese relatives to serve at pop-up events throughout Greenville.
I’ve asked to do this interview in Mary’s kitchen for selfish reasons. Outside of takeout—which is more of an American-Chinese hybrid—there is shockingly little Chinese food in Greenville. I’m the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and the food I grew up with simply doesn’t exist in Greenville.
That’s why I went to the Mary Dumpling pop-up in the first place. The promise of dumplings, dim sum, and other snacks piqued my interest, particularly because they seemed the very dishes I remember from my mother’s kitchen. Mary’s didn’t disappoint, and when you find something as near as can be to your own mother’s cooking, you don’t let that go.
To my surprise, Mary agrees to let me invade her kitchen—provided I help out. The daughter of Hong Kong émigrés who moved to England, Mary grew up helping in her parents’ Chinese takeout restaurant, first in the kitchen, then at the front of the house. But, for Mary, food was more than a means of financial stability. It was a way to connect.
“Growing up in a society where you are the minority, it’s really through food and storytelling that you’re passing on your cultural heritage,” Mary says. “It always amazes me that no matter how busy my parents were with the restaurant, my parents always had a family dinner for us. And when I became a mother, it became important for me to share that with my kids, as well.”
Food extended beyond her family into her community. “On Sundays, all the Chinese families would go to Chinatown and sit and have dim sum, and do their shopping for that week,” Mary says. “The whole community would come out, my mum and dad would hang out with their friends, play mahjong.” For Mary’s family, which was busy with the restaurant six days a week, the two- to three-hour affair represented a rare respite and opportunity to be a part of the community.
On this Sunday, Mary wants to try something different. Instead of dumplings, we’re making baozi, a savory, stuffed bun. The filling she has prepared is a mixture of ground pork, carrots, ginger, garlic, Chinese chive, and green onions, flavored with turmeric, soy sauce, salt, and white pepper. Once wrapped, baozi are typically steamed, which transforms the dough into pillowy, chewy bites wrapped around a juicy, savory center. We’re also making a steam-fried version—a street-food special—which adds a crunchy, golden crust to the soft, chewy formula.
Mary’s practiced hands make quick work of the dough: she pinches off nuggets, rolling them into little wrappers; spoons the filling into the middle; and gathers up the edges into neat pleats. Her baozi have the beautiful imperfections of anything handmade: round and plump omens of savory delight. Mine, on the other hand, are decidedly misshapen, stained orange by turmeric where I’ve overfilled the wrappers.
“As my mum used to say, it all comes out the same way,” Mary laughs. It’s a generous deflection from my baozi’s shortcomings, but entirely genuine. After all, she hasn’t invited me into her kitchen with the expectation of perfection. As her dumplings are to Greenville, Mary’s invitation is a way to stay faithful to her cultural roots, to share them, and to be faithful to the connective possibility of food.
To stay up-to-date on Mary Dumpling’s future pop-up dinners, follow her on Instagram (@marydumpling).