On a leafy side street in Plaza Midwood sits a red cube of a trailer. On the front, a shaded map of the Chinese province of Szechuan is punctuated by a black-and-white yin/yang symbol. That marks the capital city of Chengdu, where owner Zhang Qian (pronounced zhon chen, last name first), the self-proclaimed Dumpling Lady, learned her craft. Inside is a compact kitchen, recently inspected and ready to roll. Here stands the manifestation of a plan to bring authentic Szechuan flavor to the streets of Charlotte.
Zhang, 28, and her husband John Nisbet are a study in contrasts. She is small, intense and dynamic, where the Raleigh native is tall, lanky and more laconic. This last could be due to the 50-hour workweek he puts in as a management consultant before spending his weekends helping the Dumpling Lady become a fast-growing local phenomenon.
The two met in Chengdu, where he applied as an English teacher in Zhang's small school. It took four years and several lengthy separations before Zhang took the leap of moving with her fiancé to the United States. During the three-month waiting period before her visa allowed her to work, she struggled to contain her energy.
"It is really hard for me to sit at home," she says. "If I have something to do, I don't eat, I don't drink, I just want to finish it. I always keep myself busy."
Nisbet concurs, "She has the most incredible work ethic I've ever seen."
Zhang finally began working as a Mandarin teacher, but quickly became restless. Aside from being uncomfortable with American parent-teacher relationships, she says, "I will get bored if I do the same things again and again." At this time, she found herself battling homesickness in the kitchen of their small brick house, finding comfort in cooking and sharing familiar flavors.
Surprisingly, Zhang came late to the kitchen. As part of the first generation under China's one-child policy, she was doted on, encouraged to study rather than learn to cook and keep house. She laughs heartily in recalling the first time she really cooked, preparing dinner for her future husband and nearly setting the place on fire by spattering hot oil onto the flaming burner. She was 25 years old, the age by which most Chinese girls are expected to marry.
Now, about four years later, a dinner invitation from the Dumpling Lady has very different results. The kitchen may still be tiny, but Zhang moves with confidence, adding red pepper flakes and chili paste without measuring. A Super G Mart calendar on the fridge attests to the authenticity of her ingredients. The sounds and smells of garlic and ginger landing in hot oil fill the small space as Zhang moves food rapidly from prep bowl to pan.
Less than half an hour later, the dining table boasts a half-dozen dishes, from gingery snow peas to a vinegary chicken salad and a spicy beef dish swimming in chili-tinted oil. Each is scooped into individual bowls of rice in an orgy of savory spiciness. The requisite ingredients for Szechuan cuisine include chili paste, red pepper flakes, ginger, garlic and the aptly named peppercorns that heighten the heat with their unique tingling sensation.
The Dumpling Lady leapt into the spotlight when Nisbet and Zhang began selling handmade dumplings at the Saturday farmers' markets in Davidson and South End's Atherton Mill. It may have been the samples of sweet pork belly, the shrimp and swordfish, or the deep red sauce dousing it all, studded with red pepper flakes and fragrant of sesame and ginger. Shoppers snapped up dumplings by the dozen, and week after week they quickly sold out. When the couple took time off this summer for their belated honeymoon in Jamaica, addicted customers quizzed other vendors to confirm they would return.
But those Saturday markets were about more than feeding addictions. Once she sold out, Zhang would get busy making connections. Today her dumplings are filled with meats from Mary L Farm, seafood from Lucky Fish and produce from Street Fare Farm. Though local sourcing is partly a marketing strategy, she says the idea hit home "especially after I started going to the farmers' markets and meeting the other vendors. Part of the reason is to support local agriculture."
She had to curtail sales of meat-filled dumplings due to county Board of Health regulations, but with the premiere of the red Dumpling Lady trailer, Zhang will be expanding her menu. Not only will meat be back on the menu, but it will be joined by ramen and other noodle dishes. The beef noodle dish with bamboo shoots is a staple of her birth city, Neijiang; the burning noodles (which more than live up to their name) hail from the nearby city of Yibin. And yes, there will be ramen, complete with creamy-yolked, soy-sauce tinged eggs.
During the week, the Dumpling Lady will park at the NoDa Company Store on Yadkin Avenue, and on Saturdays she'll be dishing out delicacies at Atherton Market. Nisbet will continue to sell vegan dumplings at Davidson farmers' market, ensuring the city is well-supplied from north to south.
Back in the couple's cozy dining room, conversation turns to Zhang's favorite American foods. "Buffalo wings," she says without hesitation, ever the fan of chili-induced heat.
"I'd never had them before, so I asked for the spiciest, and it made tears come out," she says.
"She ate them all," adds Nisbet. "That's why she cried; she ate the whole thing." It seems an apt metaphor for a woman who takes life in big bites. Thankfully, with dumplings, she's willing to share.