Dumpling Diplomacy founder Nancy Loo started the group as a way to share Asian American culture through dumplings. And the Montclair community has shown a strong interest — filling volunteer slots at monthly community service days and buying out tickets for events including a Hong Kong-style cafe dinner to celebrate Lunar New Year on Sunday.
Since its launch about nine months ago, the group has also created spaces for people to let their guard down and connect over shared experiences while helping the community.
“What I’m trying to do is create programs where people get a chance to see each other in different lights, in different guises, but in a way that’s not part of a curriculum,” Loo said. “It’s just about being able to see a person and all of their complexities.”
Loo reached out to Toni’s Kitchen in early 2022 with an idea — a one-off event that paired individuals who knew how to make dumplings with volunteers to create food packages for those in need, each accompanied with a decorated, personalized card.
At the time, Loo was chair of AAPI Montclair’s Eating Club and wanted to find ways to bring Asian culture to Montclair amid a rise in acts of discrimination and hate against Asians, she said. A report by the California State University, San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% across the United States in 2021.
“I was trying to think of a way to introduce Asian food but from an American perspective to the larger community in a way that didn’t feel like a lecture,” Loo said. “It would be a community-building activity.”
So she created a sign-up list and shared it on the AAPI Montclair Slack channel.
“I wasn’t sure that there’d be so much interest in it,” she said.
Soon she got word that people weren’t able to access the sign-up anymore. What she thought was a glitch turned out to be overwhelming interest in the event, she said. Within five hours of posting the event, the initial sign-up list had been filled, as well as a waiting list for two additional sessions.
“I got back to Toni’s and said I think we can do this monthly,” Loo said.
In May 2022, Loo held the event that would become the beginning of Dumpling Diplomacy’s Dumpling Day of Service, a monthly dumpling-making session at Toni’s Kitchen to produce packaged dumplings to be distributed to those in need.
Toni’s Kitchen provides funds for the ingredients, and Dumpling Diplomacy provides the volunteers. The Dumpling Days of Service are on the second Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
At the events, groups of eight to 10 volunteers make about 500 dumplings, Loo said. But before they enter the kitchen to shape, boil and fry the dumplings, Loo has already done the groundwork to ensure a successful day.
She makes the dumpling fillings the night before or the morning of the events, since the volunteers only have limited time to work on Sundays, she said. She is the first person into Toni’s Kitchen on the Dumpling Day mornings. She sets up the commercial sink, lays out ingredients and dumpling wrappers, assembles the cooking spaces — the steamer, the big cast-iron pan, the pot of boiling water — and lays out the packaging and card-making station.
When the volunteers arrive, Loo shares a brief history of Toni’s Kitchen, what Dumpling Diplomacy is about, and a history of dumplings and how to fold them, she said.
For volunteers who may not be aware of food insecurity in Montclair, the event and the visit to Toni’s Kitchen, filled with physical reminders of the community’s need, can make a big impact, she said.
Later in the day, the volunteers get to taste their day’s work, alongside different types of sauces.
Loo likes to switch it up, making different types of dumplings each month — the volunteers have made Tibetan beef momos, Zucchini Korean mandu, Japanese gyoza and Chinese shumai.
She has also been approached by community members pitching dumplings from their own culture and is planning to include those in future sessions.
The 500 dumplings then get separated into about 160 packages to be distributed by Toni’s Kitchen later in the day, she said.
Since the first one-off event, Loo has wanted the food packages to be more than just the dumplings. Each package is adorned with a personalized dumpling card.
“The dumpling cards themselves have been a great lesson for me in how to put an idea out there and let people express themselves,” she said.
Drawn on an index card, the only instructions for the cards are that they must include the words Dumpling Diplomacy and feature a drawing of a dumpling. Thousands of cards have been made since Dumpling Days began last year, but some of her favorites include a toddler-drawn wobbly circle dumpling, drawings of dumplings lifting weights to get strong, singing to music and riding a horse, and the work of the Montclair High School Asian Student Union — dumplings as undersea creatures.
“You really get a window into what people are thinking,” Loo said.
While the original goal of Dumpling Days was to educate volunteers about Toni’s Kitchen, Asian culture and how to make dumplings, the events have become more than that, she said.
For the volunteers at each event, diverse groups of all ages, the cooking helps to break down barriers and build connections, she said.
“Dumpling-making, over and over again, is a very meditative process, so what happens as time goes on is folks get more comfortable with each other,” Loo said.
And that’s what she wants.
“I’m Asian American, I’m a woman, I’m a scientist, I’m a technologist, I’m a mom,” she said. “When we go to events, and we go to meetings, there’s a different side of us that is present, and that’s fine in a professional setting, in an event setting, in a school setting.
“But what I’m hoping to do is to actually be able to have some time every day to get into the practice, just noticing the person and everything that they may be.”
Running Dumpling Diplomacy, which also includes Essex Asian Table, a group focused on events and conversations around food, and a new initiative called Milk and Cookies, an event incubator that launches this year, is taking up more and more of Loo’s time. She recently incorporated the group as an LLC and is constantly thinking of ways to include new groups and expand efforts.
The community is rallying around her, with organizations reaching out for partnership and asking how they can get involved, she said.
Different groups from Montclair and elsewhere — Union Congregational Church, Glen Ridge Diversity + Inclusion Association, Bloomfield Middle School — have helped out or plan to help out with Dumpling Day and making dumpling cards. Volunteer sign-ups are booked through May. A fundraiser Dumpling Diplomacy held for Toni’s Kitchen in October raised more than $5,000. And the Lunar New Year event, a Hong Kong-style cafe, sold out of its 65 available tickets in one day.
“Every time I do something, there’s always that fear that no one’s gonna show up,” Loo said. “And then it’s like, ‘Oh look, it worked.’”
She plans to continue expanding the work of Dumpling Diplomacy, ensuring that events are accessible to community members of diverse abilities and economic backgrounds.
Through the Milk and Cookies initiative, Dumpling Diplomacy is planning an event for Nishuane School students on the autism spectrum. Also open to siblings and parents, the event will feature a sensory experience making rabbit-shaped mochi, a Japanese rice cake.
“Everyone gets to participate in a way that is relaxing for them and that feels like them,” Loo said. “And their kids get to be part of something, part of the community in a way that this group doesn’t always get to be.”
To learn more about Dumpling Diplomacy, visit its website at dumplingdiplomacy.com.