Editor’s note: This is the first installment of “Food & Faith,” an occasional series featuring Eastern Iowa faith groups and the meals they share together.
NORTH LIBERTY — As each person walked into the Chinese Church of Iowa City on the eve of the Chinese New Year, they were greeted enthusiastically and put to work helping make dumplings.
Groups of church members were huddled around tables in the main hall, chatting amiably as they filled hundreds of dumplings for that night’s celebrations.
“This event is really more like a family event. Everyone gathers around, it’s a great family thing for people to gather and enjoy the fellowship,” said Patrick Fan of Iowa City. “It’s like Thanksgiving dinner.”
He was leading a table of children, cutting rounds of dough for them to roll out into dumpling wrappers.
“We give them tasks to do, so they learn. Once they grow up, they’ll have the skills,” he said. “For our kids, growing up here, it passes on the culture and traditions.”
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The Chinese Church of Iowa City, which actually is in North Liberty, attracts members from around the Corridor. A Christian Reformed Church, it was originally founded in Iowa City, where the congregation met in space borrowed from another church. When they constructed their own building in 2006, they decided to move to North Liberty to make it easier for members from Cedar Rapids to attend.
Pastor Jian-Lou Xu leads the church, which holds two worship services on Sunday mornings, one in Chinese, one in English. There are also prayer meetings in both languages, as well as Sunday school, followed by a weekly communal meal. A Friday night meal and Bible study are aimed at college students.
“We’re a very close-knit community,” Xu said. “We are very proud of this community.”
The church draws members who are originally from mainland China†Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Other congregants were born in the United States. On holidays like the New Year, students and community members who don’t normally attend the church are invited to join meals.
“This church draws people with Chinese backgrounds together, and with the English services, others join as well,” Fan said. “All are welcome.”
Cooking together builds up the community but also helps members feel less homesick, he added.
“There is friendship, fellowship,” he said. “When people are here, they feel the bond, the tie, as a family member. We are brothers and sisters, we help each other.”
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As the evening went on, more and more people showed up, as they got off work and the dinner hour drew nearer. The meal was followed by songs, dances and a sermon.
Cathy Feng, of Mount Vernon, organized the dumpling making and meal for the celebration. The atmosphere, “Is like Christmas,” she said, emphasizing her red dress, the color of the holiday.
Also known as Lunar New Year and as the Spring Festival, the holiday is celebrated not just in China but in South Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Each year is given an animal — 2020 is the year of the rat.
Feng said dumplings are a traditional part of New Year celebrations in northern China.
“We make dumplings on the last day of the year,” she said. “They’re round, and they put things together. It’s a good meaning; nothing sharp for your life, and they look like money.”
Dumpling fillings are versatile and can be adjusted to taste. At this celebration, there were three varieties, one with pork, one with shrimp and one with only vegetables. Common ingredients include Chinese leeks, celery and radish, said Fan.
Church members made homemade dumpling wrappers for the celebration, but premade wrappers are readily available at most grocery stores and Asian markets.
For the celebration, the congregation made three different colors of dough, dyed green or red with spinach and carrot juice mixed into the batter. Each color was used to note a certain filling, to make it easier for people to know what they were eating.
Different church members had different techniques for shaping and pinching their dumplings. Some said it depended on what part of China they were from; the main thing is to make sure the filling is sealed inside the dough.
“Chinese restaurants never can compare to our homemade food,” said Leon Qiao, of Cedar Rapids. “We’ll maybe make 1,000 dumplings. The New Year is so important for Chinese people."
Make your own dumplings
For the dumplings:
• 1 pound minced cabbage
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1.5 pounds ground pork
• 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
• 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
• 3 tablespoons chopped green onions
• 1 teaspoon soy sauce
• 1 teaspoon black sesame oil (also called toasted sesame oil)
• 1 teaspoon rice cooking wine
• 1 teaspoon oyster sauce (optional)
• 1 egg
• 1 package dumpling wrappers (40 to 50 wrappers)
Combine all dumpling ingredients except the wrappers in a large bowl and turn with fork until the mixture is starting to feel sticky. If you want to test the taste, cook 1 teaspoon-sized amount in the microwave until cooked through, about 10 seconds. Then adjust seasoning.
To make the dumpling, hold one wrapper on top of the hand. Put 1 teaspoon filling in the center of the wrapper. Put a little bit of water on the edge of the wrapper. Gently support the dumpling in one hand, using another hand to fold the dumpling like a taco and pinching the edges shut.
Boil a big pot of water and put the dumplings in the water. Once they start floating, add 1 cup of cold water, and then let the water come back to a boil. Do this two more times. When the water boils after the third cold water addition, remove the dumplings from the water; they are ready to eat!
For the sauce:
• 1/2 cup rice vinegar
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons chili oil (optional)
Whisk all ingredients together and serve as a dipping sauce with dumplings.
Source: Cathy Feng
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