It’s a cold January afternoon in 2011, and I’m standing in front of a narrow doorway in London’s Chinatown with my boyfriend and some increasingly hungry graduate school friends in tow.
We’re crowded around a laminated menu taped to the front window of Jen Cafe -- a cheerful corner location with bright jade green walls -- debating the merits of the Beijing-style dumplings (jiaozi or 餃子) apparently on offer. It’s a few days before Chinese Lunar New Year’s and we’re torn between something instantly accessible and New Year’s-worthy, and our ongoing desire for authenticity. Though the seven of us are international students, we’re also self-proclaimed Londoners at this moment in time. We want to eat somewhere with locals, and it’s impossible to tell if Jen Cafe fits the bill.
Ultimately, it’s the employee working one window over who helps tips the scales. She’s kneading dough for dumplings in a familiar, methodical motion, using the same hand movements I’d see from my grandfather at home in California, or that my dorm mate Fei-Fei might see from her family in Shanxi, China. There’s a universal feeling of home in the reassuring puffs of flour rising slowly through her fingers, and we all agree in a chorus of now-homesick voices, let’s go in.
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"We eat, we order more dumplings, and we welcome more strangers to our table."
The concept of bonding through a shared culinary experience isn’t new.
The world feels a little friendlier and a little more accessible when we share a meal, regardless of whether we’re eating Beijing-style dumplings in Orange County or in London. I’ve always felt a little spark of joy when I’ve met someone new and realized -- yes, they love to eat exactly what I eat. It’s a very specific type of familiarity that immediately breaks down barriers.
But it wasn’t until this trip to Jen’s that I started considering how a shared preference for a certain dish, and gathering around that dish, could say something about the political state of the world. What I originally viewed as just a trip to find dumplings in honor of Chinese New Year’s ended up becoming a larger gateway to our past, present and political futures throughout the course of one evening.
"We leave Jen Cafe feeling a little fuller, and a little more optimistic about our future."
Inside, the cluster of older Chinese women running Jen Cafe openly stare as we trickle in. My boyfriend is a towering six foot six, and noticeably taller than anyone else in proximity. “Ah! We have a giant…” one woman calls in Mandarin as she eyes him.
His height becomes a logistics puzzle, as several of the women rearrange what feels like half of the cafe to seat us. They gesture emphatically for a pair of already-seated customers to stand before pushing together two of the cafe’s wooden tables. Once the women have made a space large enough, they urge all of us to sit down together -- to everyone’s amusement. Though table sharing (dā tái or 搭枱) definitely isn’t uncommon in some Asian restaurants, we’re still a little surprised.
There’s a brief and awkward silence at the table, broken almost immediately by the arrival of food.
Our new tablemates have also ordered the same handmade Beijing dumplings that caught our attention outside. As their plates are set on the table, one of them smiles as we point this out, and he shrugs. “Looks like we all couldn’t resist such effective marketing.” And just like that, there’s laughter and we start talking.
The first pair of strangers turn out to be Australians on a gap year. They share stories about their travels and ask us about global politics, after learning we’re graduate students in political science. We discuss the current situation in the Middle East and China -- we were seeing the start of what would eventually become the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution -- a conversation quickly picked up by the German couple who takes their place. They’re regulars at Jen’s who also order the dumplings, before sparking an animated debate on the possibility of a democratic China.
And that’s how it goes for the next two hours. We eat, we order more dumplings, and we welcome more strangers to our table.
We meet businessmen from the City with strong opinions on pan-fried dumplings and US foreign policy, and British families who ask questions on how to properly cook Chinese food and international study. We even run into a group of Americans who’ve sought out Jen’s for reasons similar to ours -- a craving for familiar food and wanting to celebrate Chinese New Year’s -- who ask if living and studying in London is as amazing as it seems. My answer is obviously an enthusiastic yes.
With the arrival of each new plate of dumplings and each new dining companion, we’re having the type of candid discussions that likely wouldn’t have been possible without our unique seating arrangements or the dumplings to break the ice. Our meal is a reminder of how even the simplest of cultural traditions and dishes can encourage otherwise unwilling strangers to engage with each other.
And with so many of the table’s conversations focusing on discussing the Middle East protests and countries influencing each other towards a stronger pursuit of democracy (and the possibilities that might lie ahead), it isn’t hard to feel that everything is a little more positively interconnected at this moment in time. Divisions feel a little smaller and more conquerable when people from different parts of the world connect over their love for dumplings.
At the end of the evening, we leave Jen Cafe feeling a little fuller, and a little more optimistic about our future.
"I still feel the power of food inspiring conversation and action."
Nine years on, I still think about the visit to Jen Cafe.
With another Chinese New Year’s right around the corner on January 25, and the world now feeling just as politically fraught as it did in 2011, it’s hard not to draw parallels between then and now.
While it would be easy to say that I was wrong about the optimism I felt in 2011 -- with subsequent political events clearly not shaking out the way that any of us would have hoped -- I do still have hope. And a lot of that hope is still driven by the ways cultural traditions and food are proactively used to influence the world for the greater good.
Recent coverage of the democracy protests from Hong Kong, have shown us how protesters have come together through the use of to communicate, support and to make a stand. They’re using food in ways that emphasize connection and engagement, like the gelato shop owner supporting protesters, or moon cakes carrying messages of solidarity and defiance. It’s not hard to see how shared cuisine can unify -- even in the face of significant challenges.
So, even though the future I once glimpsed at Jen Cafe still hasn’t come to pass, I still feel the power of food inspiring conversation and action. I see it happening, in powerful locations around the world. And it’s what I’ll be thinking about when I sit down to another meal of dumplings on the 25th.
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