LIKE WATER FOR DUMPLINGS
An unexpected slice of Asian fusion in Ballito
No kung fu, just That Damn Vandal, an inspiring woman with a lightness of being, noodling around with intense Asian fusion flavours and a gifted dumpling maker. It’s all happening in an out-of-the-way spot in KZN.
I don’t anticipate putting Confucius, Bruce Lee and dumplings into an opening sentence when this friend, who visits Ballito from Jozi a couple of times a year and eats out often while there, messages me about a tasty new place he’s come upon. Tucked away in an industrial complex, behind one of the malls Ballito seems to specialise in. It is, he says, a dumpling bar. “But I didn’t have the dumplings because I consider dumplings, potstickers, bao buns, best for sharing.” He’d tried their dandan noodles. “Very tasty, the chopped peanuts contributing. It’s Sichuan so I knew it would be hot. The flavour was perfect for me. Would definitely have it again.”
I find the place on Instagram. Called Dumpling Bar; it opened in October. And the next week I find myself sharing, with long-time friend Arthur, before he drives back home, steamed dumplings, as in light and juicy parcels of pork and cabbage (you get six), then flavoursome roast duck bao buns (you get two). And from the “chef speciality” menu, the Thai chilli paste stir-fry with basil, served with veg, which is chewy and fresh-chilli-spicy and textured, drumstick chicken meat having been used.
The drumstick “best part for stir-fry” tip I will only get a week later when, after returning to Ballito and eating there twice more (now with myself for company), I introduce myself to Cindy Liu, the Dumpling Bar’s amazeballs boss-lady. Formally introduce myself, is what I mean, beyond the nameless woman who keeps popping in on her own to eat and ask questions. All of which Liu and her switched-on servers, might I add, answer candidly and as if they care.
Now I ask Liu if we might sit down and talk, sure there is a story to be told about the coming-into-being of this cool little spot where I find myself wanting to try everything on the menu, which almost never happens.
To backtrack a week to that first dumpling-sharing visit. I had asked the young Asian woman, doing something at the fridge near the red, black and grey unmistakably Asian mural that bowls you over when you walk in (such is the contrast to the industrial park setting) if this was her place.
“Yes,” she said.
And was she Chinese?
“Yes,” she affirmed.
I didn’t ask if she practised kung fu. And if that sounds like stereotyping, forgive me. I am a big martial arts fan. Did karate for four years (brown belt) a long time ago. Still rank it as the best sport I ever did. You got a kid with ADHD? Google the research on the benefits of karate and other martial arts.
Seeing Liu on that first visit, in front of the kick-ass mural done by (check him out) That Damn Vandal (Shaun Oakley), into my head popped a fight scene – grace, style and lethal karate kicks (yes, romanticised) – from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The Lucy Liu (versus Uma Thurman) character. I mentioned as much to my TGIFood editor when pitching the Dumpling Bar as a potential story. Not knowing then that, by chance, snap! Same surname.
But that’s where the similarity ends. This Liu, who has a lightness of being and the grace of a dancer, does yoga and treadmill running as her routine to keep herself fit and focused. Then there is Bruce Lee. And Confucius. But I am getting ahead of myself. Those references come well into our conversation. When, given her inspiring story of self-motivated success, I am looking for strategies and secrets.
We sit first to talk at a table downstairs in the Dumpling Bar. But someone is using a noisy drill to install a new geyser in the kitchen. So we try upstairs, where the red, black and grey theme continues and “nothing is random”, Liu says, from the light fittings to the table wood to the second full-wall mural.
Random, though, is the noise, which has us escape into the quiet of her small office. Where she leaves me for a couple of minutes. Returns with a sliced Asian pear. “My favourite,” she says. “I want you to try it.”
I know she has a chef and kitchen helpers and that her cousin and business partner, Lee Zhu, is the dumpling ninja. But does she cook? What does she cook? How did she come to open this dumpling bar? What does she like to eat? And why a dumpling bar?
“I like cooking if I’m in the mood,” she laughs. “But when I’m busy, I won’t. Weekends I cook for my family. My son. He’s five.” (She shows me pictures on her phone and goes briefly and understandably – he’s cute – into mom-raptures.)
More about the menu to come. Enough to say, for starters, that she can cook everything on it except the duck (“very specialised”). Her faves are the slow-cooked pork belly and noodle broth and the Asian vegetable stir fry, “so light and kind of different”. She recommends the Kung Pao prawns. And every day, noodles, dumplings and rice, which are in her genes, she says. Can’t live without them.
Lui, who is 29, came to South Africa in 2010. Her dad had relocated to Joburg a few years earlier. She stayed with her grandparents till she finished high school. “In Guangzhou, but not quite Guangzhou. A village nearby, in Taishan.” She googles, shows me on her cellphone, which is something she does often while we talk. Consults. To check a word in English. To look up Martin Yan when I ask if she’s heard of the Chinese chef who for years hosted a cooking show on public television in the US. (She hadn’t.) Who told me, when I interviewed him, that there are restaurants in China where you will pay more for your meal than in any other country in the world. Liu and I are both intrigued to find that Yan, like her, is from Taishan.
“Cooking when you’re Chinese is something you learn naturally, growing up. We watch our parents. Then, because they are working, we start cooking so we can feed ourselves. Cooking is in our genes. I learnt a lot from my grandparents, helping them.”
When she got to South Africa her dad sent her to relatives in Cape Town. In the year she was there, she committed herself to English language classes every morning. Afternoons, she found an internship making sushi. “In China as teenagers, we ate a lot of sushi.” I think of sushi as having its roots in Japanese. But when I Google, find several sites, like this one, that tell me sushi originated in China.
Having done her year-long intensive English course, Liu’s dad asked her to go to Durban. “He wanted me to work for him.”
She did, for a while. “But it wasn’t interesting.”
So, and this is where the real story begins, she thought she would rather start her own business. She was, she acknowledges, very young and had no capital. “The only skill I had was making sushi.”
She also had an idea. She spoke to her brother-in-law, who has an Asian fusion restaurant called Seven Oceans in Durban North. “I suggested we do a small business together.” He had friends who, too, could make sushi. Her thought was to approach two large Spar stores in the Glen Ashley area of Durban North, to provide them with in-house sushi. The business launched in 2012. In 2014 they added the Spar at the Ballito Lifestyle Centre. All were – still are – popular and successful.
She liked (likes) Ballito and three years ago, having built some credit, decided it was time to start her own sushi and Asian fusion takeaway. Share some of her favourite dishes with people she believed would enjoy them.
Liu couldn’t find a location in Ballito. But at Salt Rock in the Sage Centre she found a quaint little shell of a place that looks like a Wendy house. It had been a fish and chip shop. She tells me with modest pride that she almost single-handedly transformed it into Oriental Taste, the well-patronised, cute, sushi and Asian-fusion takeaway, with three outdoor tables.
Along with the sushi, Liu had decided to put her own favourite food on the menu. “Kind of typical and popular dishes I have eaten literally every day.”
At Oriental Taste, “we started with just three of us. Me, a chef and a lady who helped us”. They opened in 2019. Became popular. “I saw that people love Asian food and sushi.” As a takeaway, they were perfectly placed when Covid came. “We continued pretty much as normal. Offered delivery (employing young guys who had lost their jobs) and were super-busy. We were fortunate. We are well-priced and people like our food.”
She also had a lot of requests for dumplings. “So the idea originated from demand. I checked and found no dumpling bars in KZN. So this is the first. I asked my cousin (Lee Zhu) to be my partner in the business. He makes all the dumplings, from scratch.
Then I thought, let’s add some noodles. Let’s offer some unique flavours and dishes that people haven’t been getting.”
Different parts of China have different foods and preferences, she says when I mention the nose-streaming Sichuan spiciness of my dandan noodles of the previous night. Where she’s from, “our eating habit is light and fresh. We don’t add a lot of chilli or spices.” Northern and Central China, however, “they love spicy food”. And South African style, she has found, “prefers lots of flavours, more spice”.
Also more crispy. She shows me guo bao rou on her cellphone for her preference, something lighter, for the crispy.
“I wanted to have Chinese food and also to go beyond, to other food I love. Japanese noodles, Chinese noodles, dumplings, bao buns.” There is the Thai dish. The Korean sticky chicken. Classic chicken chow mein.
Almost two months in, she’s happy with how things are going. And hopeful. “When I achieve my targets I feel my effort has been worthwhile and my time valuable. If you put in passion and do what you love, your business grows at the end of the day. I love what I do. I love how through food, one creates connection. Shares and gives understanding of different cultures.”
When I attempt to peel off the bracts to get to the heart of her initiative, she tells me she is inspired by her son. Also that how she connects and relates to difficulties and to people in the challenging business of hospitality – where, as Jean Paul Sartre said, “hell is (or can be) other people” – is consciously guided by ideas that speak to her from Confucius and Bruce Lee. “My cousin (Zhu), we live together. We talk a lot about life. Success I believe is a mindset.”
From Confucius come things like, “Your life is what your thoughts make it” and “As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, a wise man should adapt himself to circumstances.”
And Bruce Lee, “I think often of what he means when he says we need to be like water.” Water that can trickle like a gentle stream or crash like a tsunami. The adaptability of water. “We can be soft and, at the same time, we can be strong.” She takes out her phone again, this time to share with me Lee’s philosophy on water. Like water for dumplings? DM/TGIFood
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