A Tale of Two Dumplings, my story about how I use my dumpling making ritual to recall precious childhood memories of family meals at my grandparents’ dining table was recently published on Al Jazeera. The story explores my family’s heritage and history and tells how an act of remembrance has become fraught with pain since Putin invaded Ukraine. I hope you’ll read it.
My story A Tale of Two Dumplings was recently published on Al Jazeera as part of the news site’s Fork the System series. The lede, A homesick Australian writer makes her family’s Ukrainian and Russian dumplings to recall treasured memories of meals in simpler times, gives you an idea as to what it’s about.
If you haven’t read Fork the System, I encourage you to. It’s “Al Jazeera’s home for all things food. From Syria to Uganda, Bangladesh to Colombia, we look at how food makes us, a forkful at a time, generation after generation.” The stories, mostly by women, are often intimate and personal stories that explore the “bigger questions of culture, politics and history through the lens of food”.
I’ve got another story publishing on the site soon, about a Cambodian cook, the food she makes to sell at the market, and her hard life. I’m using her story to examine the history of a kind of Cambodian dessert that she makes, as well as to look at the market economy which long provided her main income and that of the incomes of similarly hardworking female market vendors.
But I wanted to share a bit more here with our readers about the background to the story and my meditative dumpling making ritual – a very Proustian ritual; my proposed title was Remembrance of Dumplings Past (I did not come up with the current title) – how it has changed since Putin’s war on Ukraine, my research into my family history, and the questions of identity raised.
Beneath my story behind the story, below, I’ve included a short excerpt to entice you to click through to Al Jazeera to read the full story.
Tale of Two Dumplings – The Story Behind My Story on Al Jazeera
After the pandemic started two and a half years ago and Terence and I lost everything – clients, commissions and contracts, including a Cambodian cookbook contract headed our way and a story commission in a major American magazine that would have covered a year’s rent, bills and groceries – we focused our attention on this website and our cookbook projects.
The Cambodian cuisine history and cookbook that we’d been developing on and off since 2013 became our main focus – made possible due to the support of our patrons on Patreon. We threw ourselves into recipe-testing and publishing Cambodian recipes here and I concentrated on researching Cambodia’s long rich culinary history, about which very little has been known.
I also began cooking my Russian family recipes more. For this homesick writer, filled with anxiety due to the pandemic and our dire financial situation, and unable to return home due to Australia’s closed borders, my dumpling-making become a therapeutic ritual, taking on greater significance, and those dumplings – Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki – became filled with memories and meaning.
By early 2021, I still hadn’t found a publisher interested in the Cambodian cookbook and culinary history – and I’m still struggling to find a publisher, but that’s another story – and I was depressed and frustrated about that. With Terence’s encouragement, in the lead-up to Russian New Year, I began developing a cookbook and memoir about my Russian side of the family and their stories and recipes – my grandmother’s recipes, my mum’s recipes, as well as my takes on their dishes and dishes we’d eaten on our travels in Russia.
Ever since, I’ve been punctuating our Cambodian cookbook work with work researching, writing and recipe-testing for the Russian cookbook. It’s going to include family stories – childhood memories, my grandparents’ and mother’s stories, and tales my grandparents told around the dining table during family meals, mostly war stories, but also stories from their childhoods, and their early years in Australia.
I also started researching the stories and history of post-World War II refugees in Australia, their lives in the displaced persons camps in Naples, Italy, from where they boarded a ship to Australia, and Greta, NSW – which my mum said my grandmother and great-grandmother hated, but where they had to stay while my grandfather worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme – along with the history of the communities of Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Latvians, and Lithuanians that grew from those post-war arrivals, and their contributions to Australia.
So, for the last year and half, I had pretty much split my time between that cookbook, the Cambodian cookbooks (yes, there’s now more than one!), and this website – until Putin invaded Ukraine and set about brutally killing the people and senselessly destroying a country that was once part of his own, and the cancelling of Russian culture began, and with that, the dream of publishing my book became in doubt.
I would switch the television on to Al Jazeera or the BBC and make my dumplings in tears, seeing my grandmother’s face in the shell-shocked faces of Ukrainian grandmothers emerging from the rubble and ruins that were once their homes. In one clip I saw an old lady carried in a stretcher over a blown-up bridge, who looked like my great-grandmother. The pain became so unbearable, I had to stop watching news on the war in Ukraine.
In an email from my uncle in Australia, in which he told me that his wife, who has British-Ukrainian heritage, was trying to help her Ukrainian relatives get to Australia, he said he’d been thinking about going to fight the Russians. I immediately responded: “but how can you fight your own people?!” That was my instant reaction. But the reality was: both the Russians and the Ukrainians were ‘our own people’. I just wasn’t sure of it at the time.
While history and politics were often discussed around my grandparents’ dining table, identity was never a topic of conversation – yet they’re inextricably linked, and perhaps nowhere more than in the lands we now know as Russia, Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, where the people who identify as Russians, Ukraines and Belorussians, descend from the medieval kingdoms of Kievan Rus and before that, from the Vikings, and share history, culture, and genes.
I’m Australian, born in Australia, but when I was at my grandparents’ home as a child, I was constantly told by my grandfather that I was “half-Russian”. With that reminder would come one of my Papa’s tales from ‘Mother Russia’. Those stories, as well as the books I was given to read, the music we listened to, the Easter and Christmas holiday rituals, and the food we ate, all contributed to forming my identity as an Australian with Russian heritage on one side of her family.
Yet, curiously, I occasionally thought, my grandmother never raised the issue of her Russian identity, nor did she ever mourn for The Motherland in the way my melancholic grandfather did, nor praise the great ‘achievements’ of Lenin and Stalin as Papa would. To the contrary, my baboushka would often curse him and the portraits of his ‘heroes’ that he’d hung on the walls beside her Orthodox icons and their paintings of majestic landscapes.
Baba, my great-grandmother and her family were from the Odessa region. Now part of Ukraine, the city of Odessa was established by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Once an ancient Greek settlement, as well as an Ottoman fortress town, Odessa was part of the Russian Empire when my great grandmother and grandmother were born, and part of the Soviet Union during World War II.
I’d long assumed my grandmother and great-grandmother had identified as Russian, although, as I say in my Al Jazeera story, I started to question Baba’s cultural identity for the first time when Terence and I took mum to Russia after dad died, and then again, a handful of years later, when we were in Poland and dined at a Ukrainian restaurant and the food tasted exactly like some of the dishes that my grandmother had made.
After those two trips, I gradually came to realise that the food that Baba cooked was a fusion of Russian-Ukrainian food, that her repertoire included dishes from both countries – although one of those countries, Ukraine, hadn’t existed when she learnt to cook. That realisation motivated me to start researching the culinary history of the region, digging into old cookbooks, and studying and recreating old recipes.
While there was no doubt from my grandfather’s declarations that he identified as Russian, I began to wonder what my grandmother, had she ever been asked, would have identified as in her later years: Russian, because she was born in the Russian Empire, or Russian-Ukrainian perhaps, because while she was born in Russia, perhaps she felt culturally or ethnically Ukrainian?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine raised all kinds of questions, issues and emotions for me. It tore me apart. But it also motivated me to dig deeper when it came to my research, and research the birthplace of my grandmother and great-grandmother, its long and complicated history, and the many cultures that had long made Odessa home.
By doing that research, particularly photo research, I was able to fit more of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and in doing so, go some way toward re-building the part of me and my identity that had been ripped apart. Oddly enough, my mum provided one of the pieces of the puzzle when I asked her a question that I could have asked her at the start, a question I’d never been motivated to ask until a few months ago.
But had I have asked, I probably wouldn’t have begun that research journey, and wouldn’t know what I know now about my grandmother’s side of the family. It means my cookbook will be more layered and richer – if I can ever find a publisher for the thing. But first, we have a Cambodian cookbook to get published.
And the question…? I bet you already know what it is. But you’ll have to read my story on Al Jazeera to be sure. Here’s a little taste of it to tempt you to click through to the site…
Tale of Two Dumplings – A Short Excerpt from a Story About Dumpling Making and Family Meals
A homesick Australian writer makes her family’s Ukrainian and Russian dumplings to recall treasured memories of meals in simpler times. By Lara Dunston
“No matter where I am in the world, all it takes is to make a batch of dumplings and I’m transported back to another place and time, more peaceful times, around the oak dining table in the red-brick bungalow my grandfather built in Blacktown in the western suburbs of Sydney.
It’s the late 1970s. Out front, my grandfather Ivan’s 1967 Falcon is in the driveway, a sprinkler waters the lawn, and rose bushes grow along the paling fence (I can smell them). There’s an oleander tree, and a jungle of tropical plants shading the dining-living area where we spend most of our time.
Here, in my kitchen in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with the news of Russia’s escalation in Ukraine on the television in the background, I begin my dumpling making ritual – an intentional act of remembering so I don’t forget.
Since Putin’s war on Ukraine began, my bittersweet dumpling-making process has become fraught with pain.I tie my apron strings, reach for the wooden rolling pin and take the flour from the cupboard. I can see my grandparents’ backyard in Australia: an iconic Hills Hoist clothesline and a henhouse full of chooks that laid eggs with deep orange yolks.
There are rickety sheds that looked like they’d topple over in a strong wind, and a flourishing vegetable garden where my grandfather, who I called Papa, grew shiny tomatoes, the crunchiest cucumbers, and fresh, fragrant dill. Some summers, there’d be sunflowers.
I sprinkle flour on the bench, rub my palms in it and close my eyes: My family is gathered at the table for Sunday lunch, a lunch so leisurely that on a languid summer’s day it will roll into dinner. There are my parents, little sister, grandparents, and two 20-something uncles.
A clear plastic cover protects a white lace tablecloth. There’s a bottle of vodka, shot glasses, tumblers for beer chasers, and lemonade for us kids. Old friends might drop by to say hello, my grandparents’ neighbours invariably join us, the Orthodox priest might make an appearance.
As a child, I’d wondered how these visitors knew my grandmother Eufrosia had made dumplings. And, much to my shame now, if there’d be enough to go around. But, of course, there would be. There’d be plenty of dumplings and an abundance of other food. The table would be heaving with dishes.
Because when your childhood memories are mostly of war, of being interminably hungry, and of treks through the Ukrainian countryside in search of food and safety, as a grandmother in more fortunate circumstances you feed your family as if the next meal might be their last. And you make sure there’s enough left over to send home with them. Nobody will ever go hungry in your house again.
Anybody and everybody was welcome at my grandparents’ but they couldn’t expect to drop by to say a quick hello. They would have to sit down and eat, even if they’d already lunched or had dinner. An extra chair was found, drink poured, clean plate and cutlery laid out.
There’d be plenty on the table but my grandmother, my Babushka – or ‘Baba’ as we called her to distinguish her from mum’s Babushka who lived with my grandparents until she died – would prepare something fresh for the guests so they weren’t eating half-finished dishes.
Like magic, a plate of boiled eggs and caviar appeared, or a basket of warm piroshki – pastries stuffed with mince, onion and vermicelli – or a new jar of rollmops (rolled pickled herrings) and sliced black rye bread. My grandparents were nothing if not hospitable.”
Read the rest of my story here on Al Jazeera. While you’re there, do read some other stories. Perhaps start with one of my favourites: Sardine Kofta in Palestine: A Love Story, about Gaza’s only fisher couple, Madelyn and Khadr.