Sweet pork and taro root and red bean buns nestle prettily in their condensation slick bamboo steaming baskets arrayed in orderly progression along the cash-only take-out line at Li Ming’s Global Mart. The pillowy white dough swells magically around an anticipated sweet and savory interior. These buns are the edible essence of temptation, seduction, desire. And, they are the stars in what I now think of as Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.
Phase 1: When Li Ming’s opened its doors in the barely converted cavern of a failed Circuit City store in a largely empty Durham, North Carolina, strip mall, jubilation filled my very being. Like so many things of merit in my world, it was Becky who discovered the global mart and carried me there as a surprise. Ecstasy! Walking through the door the very first time, my eye turned to the iconic glassed Peking duck cabinet – and to the side a stand of double-tiered commercial kitchen steamers, each aluminum tray packed with fresh buns and dumplings. Standing behind his wares, the dumpling counterman smiled, answered questions on the relative merits of each variety, and then plucked the chosen few from their steam-wreathed incubators.
Phase 2: Not too many weeks later, dumplings were on my mind (somewhere between musings on Eastern Shore of Virginia Shooting Point oysters and Cane Creek Ossabaw pig chorizo). Entering Li Ming’s, my first realization was of changes instituted at the dumpling counter. Bamboo steamers replaced the first aluminum containers; neatly typed placards identified buns and dumplings by type and ingredients. New buns had debuted, most notably a Vietnamese pork bun with a hard boiled egg inside. The familiar face of the counterman smiled; the buns met every expectation of delectation. What I failed to recognize, though, was that a grander transformation was in progress and those bamboo steamers were the harbingers of the emergence of Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.
Phase 3: Less than a year after I first stepped through the doors of Li Ming’s Global Mart, the bun and dumpling counter evolved into theater. The walls painted bright orange provided a backdrop that threw every object, person, and action into vividly staggering high relief. This was an orange so aggressive that every detail of every gesture and thing in front of that background appeared digitally etched to the point of special effects. A black plastic rimmed flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall rotated images of artfully posed, tastefully modeled selections available in the bamboo steamers. Between the bank of steamers and the orange wall, the counterman, now clearly remade as dumpling master, presided over a steel table covered with trays of ingredients.
This was stage and cast, theater came next. The dumpling master in his red shirt reached to his right, and peeled up a four-inch round of risen bun dough. Evidence that the dough was mixed and risen on the stage was clearly evident in the stainless steel mixer and glass-doored rising chambers off to the left. Cradling the bun round in one surgically-gloved hand, the dumpling master (creating the Vietnamese buns that debuted only weeks earlier), scooped fresh pork sausage into the center. Then he added the hardboiled egg and a bit of cured Chinese sausage. Gently twirling the bun in his left hand, the dumpling master brought the sides to a teardrop point, delicately pinching the gathering closed in a flourish of balletic grace. I was stunned! There was no mystery here! This was a dramatic and clinical moment when the dumpling master formed the heart of the bun. These buns were the real deal, the authentic thing – not because they were any different or better, but because the dumpling theater invited witness. These were buns of legend and spectacle.
And, that is the problem, bearing witness to the forensics of authenticity. The dumpling master’s buns remain a triumph in my culinary imagination, and yet it seemed in that moment as if too much had been revealed, as if I could make claims to a different kind of ownership premised not on delight but information. Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater in its orange splendor and culinary performance overwhelmed the imagination with spectacle. Still, I purchased my dumplings, and standing discretely in the frozen food aisle took one out of its Styrofoam box and chomped down, happily. A single tear wet my cheek. That’s the problem with authenticity.