Papa's Dumpling Folds in the Freshness and Flavors of Family Tradition and Northern China

May 14, 2021

For Jojo Zhu, making dumplings is not just a carefully honed craft. It is a way of sharing her family’s traditions and how they care for each other. After emigrating from the Northern Chinese city of Harbin to the Bay Area, Jojo, and her father, Peishu, found a lack of representation of their cuisine, inspiring Jojo to launch Papa’s Dumpling to bring authentic handmade dumplings to the farmers market community.

At Mission Community Market, Jojo shares freshly made steamed buns (bao zi) and pan-fried potstickers (guo tie) in flavors like pork, shrimp, and chive or vegan tofu, mushroom, and basil, all cooked to perfection, or frozen and ready to heat at home. Jojo shared more about the love and history that is tenderly folded into each dumpling, and what makes the cuisine of Northern China special.

CUESA: How did Papa’s Dumpling begin?

Jojo: It’s all about my dad. When I came here from China, I had a lot on my plate taking care of my daughters by myself. My dad said he would like to come to help. He stayed home and cooked for us most of the time. Sometimes my friends would come over and enjoy his dumplings. They would say, “This is so good and delicious. You should let more people try it!” That made him happy.

We’re from Northern China. We eat noodles, steamed buns, and dumplings. In Southern China, people eat rice most of the time. At most dumpling places in the Bay Area, the recipes are from Southern China. They make pork buns using barbecue pork. In Northern China, everything is savory, nothing is sweet. That’s our specialty. My friends from my hometown would say they couldn’t find our food here. That’s how the idea for Papa’s Dumpling came about. We wanted more people to try the food of Northern China.

Can you tell us about your dumpling making process?

Our dumplings are 100% handcrafted. It’s a lot of labor and time. We buy fresh ingredients on Monday or Tuesday, then we get back to the kitchen and start washing and preparing them. We don’t use meat grinders or ingredient processors. Everything is cut by hand in big pieces, so that people can taste the fresh ingredients. We believe using big pieces of meat is more tasty than smashed or ground up in small pieces. With the vegan tofu potstickers, we use fresh mushrooms and organic tofu. When you open it up, you can see what you’re eating. 

We make our own dough. Each dumpling has a custom dough and wrappers to match the filling. We hand-roll them, which is why they come out so accurate. My dad and I always work in the kitchen together. I watched my parents and grandparents making dumplings since I was little. I’d see how my grandparents made the dough, then my parents would do it. Now I’m doing it. It’s a whole family thing.

That’s the two main reasons the dumplings are really tasty. We don’t put MSG or artificial flavors; everything is fresh and healthy. The dumplings we bring to the market are how grandparents make them for their kids. When you cook for your customers the way that you cook for your family at home, they will taste the love.

How does being at the farmers market fit into your business?

Since everything is freshly made each week, we sell only at farmers markets. We launched in 2019 selling in Livermore. Dumplings are not a common food in America. People know tacos, burritos, pizza, and pasta, but they don’t know about dumplings. So I started just giving out samples, and 95% of the people buy my dumplings once they try them. Because of the pandemic we had to stop selling at farmers markets for a few months, then as farmers markets opened up, we started reaching out to new markets. 

How have your dumplings been received at Mission Community Market?

The market feels like a huge family, like everyone is part of it. People know every single vendor, and recognize this is a new vendor right away. I love chatting with customers because they want to know what they’re eating, and everything about your product. Most people are curious about our pork buns, because most buns are sweeter, but our buns are savory. They’re surprised by that. 

How are you planning for the future right now?

I’m one to go with the flow. It’s hard for us to expand at this time because it’s hard to find people to work. Every business wants to expand to do well, but I really want to keep the traditional way of making our food, rather than just looking at the numbers. I really enjoy the farmers market life. My mission is to help more people know the food of Northern China, and it makes me happy to hear that people enjoy our dumplings. It’s about bringing the culture from another country, and knowing that people love the food of my family.

Find Papa’s Dumpling at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays, 3-7pm.

Photos courtesy of Papa’s Dumpling.

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