The story of how restaurant-quality Chinese-American dumplings have become a nationwide sensation is about pandemic pivoting, changes in dining habits and resourceful chefs and entrepreneurs finding ways to survive and then thrive. But at the heart of it, it’s a story about comfort and restoration and the way delicious food makes you feel.
“Dumplings always equal love,” Ms. Chi chef Shirley Chung told Observer. Chi ships her Top Chef-famous made-in-LA jumbo cheeseburger potstickers and other dumplings nationwide via Goldbelly. “Pretty much every single culture has dumplings, and the best dumplings are made by your grandmother at home. And the way we cook Chinese dumplings, you can always recreate that restaurant-quality freshly cooked dumpling at home. A dumpling is the perfect vessel.”
Washington D.C. chef Tim Ma, who runs takeout spot Lucky Danger and has his Laoban organic dumplings nationwide at every Whole Foods store, many Sprouts locations and other supermarkets, also understands that a dumpling can be a home for all sorts of ingredients. At Ma’s first restaurant, he served Chinese dumplings, Salvadorian dumplings and chocolate dumplings. At Laoban, he’s leaned into Asian flavors, developing items including ginger chicken dumplings, pork soup dumplings and spicy vegetable dumplings.
When it comes to dumplings, Ma told Observer, “I think, universally, it’s a good way to eat things and it’s simple. You can really put anything into it.”
Ma is quick to point out the freezer sections of Asian grocery stores have long been filled with dozens of dumpling varieties. But the pandemic and the desire of Americans to eat higher-quality food at home (including food powered by ginger, scallions, chives and Chinese cabbage) have helped spark a more mainstream dumpling demand in the United States.
This coincides with the rise in popularity of noodles, chili crisp and other Asian food products.
“I think that Asian cuisine as a whole is truly having a moment within American grocery stores,” Ma said. “The demand is so high.”
MìLà, a direct-to-consumer nationwide purveyor of top-tier soup dumplings, noodles, sauces, steamer baskets and more, has also seen its demand skyrocket. Born out of a Seattle restaurant, MìLà (a name rooted in the Chinese words for honey and spice) was formerly known as Xiao Chi Jie (which means street food avenue) before recently rebranding to reflect its larger aspirations. The company, started by Jennifer Liao and Caleb Wang, also now has actor and author Simu Liu as its chief content officer. After raising a total of more than $30 million in two rounds of funding, MìLà is focused on expanding its selection with vegan dumplings, gluten-free dumplings and beyond.
“We’re a Chinese-American company,” Liao told Observer. “We want to share more of our flavors with more people. If they’re exposed to it, it becomes familiar and they’ll like it as well. … We explored a name that was broader in range and could grow with us. And then as part of that process, we wanted something that represented both sides of us, where it is Chinese and American.”
Liao credits dominant restaurant chain Din Tai Fung for jumpstarting America’s interest in soup dumplings.
“Asian food has had a really unearned bad reputation of being cheap food,” Liao said. “People don’t want to pay up for the food. And if you don’t charge a higher price, then you can’t funnel that back into R&D or innovation or different materials. But because we started with soup dumplings and people had the education from Din Tai Fung of this being like a gourmet delicacy, they started to open their minds.”
It’s time for all these dumpling slingers to think about how big things can get. Chung is proud to say that Goldbelly saved her restaurant and allows her to pay her rent at Ms. Chi. She even closes the restaurant a couple days a week to produce and fulfill dumpling orders.
“I was one of the first Chinese vendors on Goldbelly,” Chung, who started with two kinds of dumplings on Goldbelly and now has five, said. “And during the pandemic, I had like a thousand percent growth in sales. My dumplings were going to not only the East Coast and West Coast but also going to middle America and spreading love there as well. And now I’m side-by-side with many other Chinese-American offerings on Goldbelly. I also expanded my dumpling offerings to wholesale for festivals and for my chef friends to sell. That sort of started my idea of a bigger dumpling vision for the future.”
So Chung and a couple of partners are working on a “dumpling startup” that will enable her to create many more potstickers for different venues.
Ma has seen firsthand how massive growth can happen when you’re a talented chef in the dumpling business.
“The scale in process to go from a hundred orders under a single roof to 2,000 doors wasn’t easy at the beginning,” he said. “Normally, I’ll write a recipe and test it and tweak it once or twice, and then we’re good to go. But the process for this, you make one mistake on this scale and it compounds. I think we’ve got it down now, which is great, but doing this with all-natural ingredients has meant a whole different set of constraints.”
The results are impressive. Laoban, like Ms. Chi and MìLà, makes frozen food that’s easy to prepare at home and tastes like freshly made dumplings at good Chinese restaurants. These are clearly businesses from culinary stars who have thought carefully about factors like the thickness of dumpling skins, the ratio of fillings and how the right gelatin turns into perfect broth when it’s steamed. You can taste the love.