20 January 2016

Her dumplings are packed with pork, filled with pride

Her dumplings are packed with pork, filled with pride
Wu Huaxia shows off a dish of shaomai at Du Yi Chu Shaomai Restaurant. Provided to China Daily
Wu Huaxia was just 17 years old when she took a job at Du Yi Chu Shaomai Restaurant 11 years ago.

But the young woman from Henan province had already been making jiaozi and shaomai (steamed pork dumplings) for a year.

So, when she arrived at Du Yi Chu, she told her master: "I know how to make this."

The master suggested they both make dumplings and compare. The contrast was so obvious that Wu didn't know what to say.

But the master did: "Sweep the floor."

Wu realized she had a lot to learn. Actually, she had to "start from scratch", she says.

She spent a year doing odd jobs at the eatery - washing dishes, sweeping the floor and wiping down tables.

But Wu felt she wasn't getting the chance to learn how to make great food.

"There wasn't a place for me among the experienced chefs," Wu says.

She also was the only person working at the restaurant who wasn't from Beijing.
"I felt a bit excluded," she says.

"I thought: 'I can't just wash plates. I must practice cooking'."

She started showing up two hours before her shift to knead dough and practice making shaomai. She would then return the dough she kneaded to be remade by the chefs.

After three months of practice, she felt ready.

But newcomers can't start making shaomai without first spending a long time only making wraps with a rolling pin.

"I understand it's the correct procedure, but I wanted to start doing real work," she says.

Wu got her chance in 2002, when a businessman invited more than 200 people to eat shaomai at the restaurant.

"I asked my master if I could try making a few shaomai," she recalls.

"People almost couldn't tell the difference between the ones I made and the ones she made. After that, I started making them for every banquet."

Du Yi Chu is a small Beijing restaurant founded in 1738. Its acclaim comes from the visit of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Qianlong, who liked the establishment so much that he gave the eatery its present name on a bronze tablet.

The restaurant is now part of Beijing Bianyifang Roast Duck Group .

Du Yi Chu's tradition of making shaomai has lasted for 269 years and won the restaurant a spot on the second national intangible cultural heritage list.

The skill involves rolling at least 24 pleats in a dough wrap with a 10-cm diameter, so the top of the pork dumpling resembles a white flower.

Wu's personal record is folding 103 pleats.

It's made more difficult by the requirement that the dough at the top must be dry enough that it can stand after steaming, but dryness makes rolling trickier. Also, the tops must spread open to be as wide as the bottom.

"If you use too much force, it breaks," Wu says.

"You must roll and wrap it to be even and presentable, and difficult to break."

Among 20 chefs making shaomai at Du Yi Chu, only three or four can make that refined variety.

"It demands an attentive heart and deft hands," she says.

Wu became the managing shaomai chef at Du Yi Chu's Fangzhuang branch in 2005.

She soon created her own versions of the dumplings. For Valentine's Day, she invented a two-tone type that resembles roses, with green from spinach on the sides and orange from carrots in the middle.

She created "five-colored rings" shaomai for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That was the year she was formally named the intangible culture inheritor.

Controversy surrounded her appointment because she isn't from Beijing. But she proved herself by beating all competitors at a shaomai making contest held in the group every three months.

The young woman attributes her success to traditional family education and her eagerness to excel.

She has signed a confidentiality agreement with Du Yi Chu to not reveal the proportions of shaomai fillings.

As executive shaomai chef, she supervises work at the restaurant's Qianmen, Fangzhuang and Yongdingmen branches. She also trains shaomai makers and is looking for her inheritor.

Wu says other companies have offered her huge salaries, but she says the several thousand yuan she earns a month is enough and she feels a sense of loyal responsibility.

The Beijing government awarded her the May 1 Labor Medal in 2011.

She had the honor of standing on the viewing platform of the Tian'anmen Rostrum to watch the National Day parade on the 60th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China in 2009.

Needless to say, she'll probably never have to sweep the restaurant's floor again.