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Talk to Lisa Zhang while she's making dumplings and you get the same impression as watching Bob Ross whip out a landscape on "The Joy of Painting" in less than 30 minutes. Is that all there is to it? you think to yourself, as her hands fly over the materials. Just like that? Well, come on, that's easy.
It's not easy, of course. Zhang, the owner and chef at Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co., just makes it look that way.
"You have to be very careful, or they'll come apart. ... It takes years to be professional," she said one recent afternoon as she spooned dabs of ground pork, vegetables and spices into the center of small circles of dough. With three deft folds, she then molded each one into its familiar shape and arrayed the results in careful ranks upon a lightly floured tray.
Dumpling-making is practically in her blood, Zhang said.
"I was born this way," she laughed. "I learned to make them when I was 5. Of course, dumplings are a traditional food in the north of China — like a family food, like a barbecue. You get all the people together, the kids see how fast we can do it ... the mother meets the son-in-law. It's a lot of fun, at family gatherings."
Here in her immaculate, white-tiled kitchen in downtown Little Rock, her methods depart somewhat from the techniques she learned as a child growing up in Manchuria. "The big thing for this operation is we use the American kitchen, the American cooking tools, to do the traditional cooking of China. ... I call it an adventure."
The space formerly belonged to Your Mama's Good Food, a soul food joint, and Zhang has retrofitted the kitchen's commercial deep fryer into a boiler that now cooks hundreds of dumplings per day. The dough is kneaded in a Kitchen Aid mixer the size of a blue USPS mailbox squatting in one corner of the kitchen. Nearby, a pasta machine stands ready to flatten the dough into thin sheets, after which a well-floured kitchen worker stamps out circles about the circumference of a pickle jar. Then, they're ready to be filled and folded and boiled.
"Now, let me show you how we traditionally make it," Zhang said, cutting off a large block of dough that had yet to be flattened. "We don't have a mixer, we don't have a pasta machine." She pinched off small chunks of the dough and reached for a small wooden rolling pin perhaps 8 inches long and tapered slightly at both ends.
"When you're talking about dumplings, really the only tool you need is this one," she continued, swiftly flattening the lumps of dough into perfect discs with brisk rolls of the pin. Then she grinned: "But if you couldn't find this one, you can even use a beer bottle."
Little Rock diners clearly have embraced Three Fold since it opened in December — just check out the lunch line on a weekday — but Zhang says it's only the beginning of her dreams for the place, which she sees as much more than just a business.
It's a way of preserving "traditional food with a long history" that is intimately tied to family and community: "a philosophy that people lived on for thousands of years."
She lamented that "Chinese kids now — they like to eat the dumplings, but they don't know how to make it. The parents buy the frozen ones from the grocery." But it's not just Chinese culture, she noted: "It's a lot of cultural traditions. You know, American traditions, too, are getting lost."
Right now, she has her hands full with the day-to-day of running a new and very successful restaurant, which is "good stress" she said, but she has bigger plans for down the road.
"After this stabilizes, I want to do two things. One is to use more local sources," she said. When the Times spoke to Zhang last week, she said she'd recently met with a local farmer. "I said, don't worry, whatever you grow, I can cook with it, because a dumpling can really incorporate any kind of vegetable. ... You grow tomatoes, I use my way to cook tomatoes."
And second, "I really want to teach people how to make traditional food ... we want American consumers or professional cooks to learn how to cook here, instead of just eating the dumplings." Let's hope that means dumpling classes sometime in the near future at Three Fold.
Zhang went to culinary school in Dallas, where she studied American regional cuisine, so she's thought long and hard about balancing American tastes with the integrity of the Chinese recipes she prepares. Chicken dumplings are one option at Three Fold that one would not often see in China, for example. When the restaurant was preparing to first open, she said, some told her that she could never expect Arkansans to accept boiled dumplings instead of the fried pot stickers more commonly seen in your average American-Chinese restaurant.
"People said, 'This dumpling won't be sold. You need to change it to the pan-fried dumpling.' " But, she insisted on doing things her way, she said, "because of the dream."