Delectable bundles of tradition

October 12, 2007 

On the northern border of South Tacoma Way’s International Business District, Jennifer Chang is a virtual international district unto herself, steadfastly cooking traditional Chinese dumplings in a predominately Korean neighborhood.

Further south on this uniquely American road, Ophelia Ramirez feeds Latinos’ tamale tradition.

Dumplings and tamales link the women, both immigrants, to their respective homelands.

DUMPLING DREAMS

Jennifer Chang owns the Chinese restaurant Hong Sheng Fung. Her specialty is dumplings: bundles of chewy dough, finely ground meat, vegetables and aromatic spices straight out of Sendong, northern China’s wheat province, whence Chang’s grandparents hail.

“I always dreamed of my little dumpling restaurant,” Chang said in accented English that was as clearly understood as the glimmer in her brown eyes. “Finally, I made a dream come true.”

Chang moved to Seattle from her native South Korea in 1978 as the result of an arranged marriage. She spoke no English and knew no one except her husband, whom she had met and married six months earlier at age 21. After 10 years as a housewife, Chang divorced. She had two children, ages 6 and 7. Chang’s prospects, like her English, were limited.

“If you want to do bad things, there are a lot of things out there,” Chang said ominously, sitting in a tea cafe near her restaurant. “I was 31 years old. Easy.”

Chang, now 50 and vibrant with spike-cropped black hair and brunette highlights, waved her arms, warding off the unnamed illicit offers that often ensnare immigrant women of limited means.

“I could make more money doing bad things,” she said, “but I didn’t do it. I had to give my kids a good example.”

Chang’s example looked like this: 18 years waiting tables at Chinese restaurants in Tacoma and Gig Harbor, cleaning neighbors’ houses, making dumplings at home and selling them to restaurants in Seattle.

Hong Sheng Fung (English translation: Potsticker Special) opened in July. Chang modeled her restaurant on the dumpling cafe her family has owned for 41 years in Busan, South Korea.

“I never hate my parents,” Chang said. “I grow up in very strict family and I have no right to say no to my father. I was just thinking, ‘It must be my destiny.’ My parents think they’re guilty; I shouldn’t have this arranged marriage.”

Chang cupped her jasmine tea, seemingly forgiving and forgetting as steam drifted away.

“Nobody can guess what kind of life you’re going to get,” she said.

She sounded happy with hers.

“I got what I wanted,” Chang said. “My kids respect me.”

DUMPLING DOPPELGANGERS

Chang makes two kinds of dumplings: crimped, crescent-shaped pockets of dough that, whether boiled, steamed or fried, every American within dialing distance of a Chinese take-out menu knows as pot stickers; and hun bao – puffy, yeasted buns “that morning, lunch and night, Chinese people eat like Americans eat potatoes and bread,” Chang said.

Dumplings have many appearances on South Tacoma Way. At Korean restaurants they’re called mandoo. In Japanese restaurants, even the ones run by Koreans, they’re called gyoza.

“Everybody makes them different ways,” Chang said. “Basically, Chinese put any kind of stuffing. My recipes are original Chinese, 100 percent.”

Chang said some Korean customers criticize her dumplings.

“They like to see bean sprouts, kimchee, big chunks of vegetables and tofu,” Chang said. “That’s Korean style. Mine are Chinese.”

Even her Chinese-born kitchen helper chides Chang to update, to change the color of her dough. But Chang can’t see doing to dumplings what spinach and sun-dried tomatoes did for tortillas.

“I said, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Chang said. “I’m very traditional in my dumplings. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad sign, but I’m stubborn anyway.”

TAMALE TRADITION

Hamburger Haven, a mid-20th-century eatery on South Tacoma Way, stood across the northern border of what is today known as the International Business District. As seen in an old black-and-white photograph, Hamburger Haven was something of a melting pot. A sign on the building touted hamburgers, hot dogs and tamales.

Flash-forward 50 years. You can still find tamales on South Tacoma Way. They just happen to be tucked among a concentration of predominately Korean businesses, at a Mexican-style fruit-and-vegetable juice shop named La Casa de Sharon.

Created as transportable food for Aztec warriors, the steamed bundles of spiced corn meal dough and stewed meats “are special to Latinos,” Ophelia Ramirez said, usually reserved for celebrations and holidays because of the labor involved in making them. She makes them only on weekends.

Ramirez, 51, declined to reveal the secrets of her recipe. A simple deconstruction goes like this: Corn meal (mixed with lard and spiced with chili powder, or maybe a red chili sauce) is spread on a piece of banana leaf. A heaping spoonful of stewed meat is placed on the dough. Dough and meat are folded up in the banana leaf, which Ramirez then wraps in foil before they’re steamed.

Ramirez wraps tamales in banana leaves, a style favored in tropical regions. Corn husks are also used.

“I like those too,” she said. “But it’s a little more hard when you use corn. You need to practice more.”

Ramirez, who moved to Seattle from the city of Aguascalientes in western central Mexico in 1991, opened La Casa de Sharon four years ago. It was her husband’s idea. At the time, she worked for a commissary at Sea-Tac, assembling fruit plates for people with special diets and cooking for first-class diners.

“My husband said, ‘You think you can work forever for somebody else?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I want to.’”

So she opened La Casa de Sharon, named after her daughter, where Ramirez squeezes fresh fruit and vegetable drinks – papaya, pineapple, strawberry, cantaloupe, carrot, celery and beet in almost any combination a customer requests. In addition to tamales, she serves fruit salads and shrimp tostadas.

While she’s working seven days a week for herself, Ramirez said she’s looking for a part-time job. Business, she said, could be better. Her husband, Efran, died two years ago.

“I tried to keep it because my husband loved the business,” Ramirez said. “Now he’s not here.”

Ed Murrieta: 253-597-8678

ed.murrieta@thenewstribune.com

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