In her childhood home in Weston, where she was raised by prominent Chinese restaurateurs, Nadia Liu Spellman celebrated Chinese New Year with sweet rice cakes, dumplings, and mahjong late into the night with aunts and cousins and extended family.
Her parents owned multiple dining spots, including the elegant Sally Ling’s on the Waterfront, later in Cambridge’s Hyatt Regency, and in Newton Center. For the family’s holiday, her mother, Sally Ling, prepared sweet rice cakes, called “nian gao,” in vast quantities. Spellman loved them when they appeared for dessert and at breakfast every morning, aromatic with a syrup made from osmanthus (a fragrant Asian flower) and tinted red, for good luck, with a drop of food coloring. A Chinese word can mean many things, says Spellman, who spoke only Mandarin until she went to kindergarten. Eating the cakes, she says, means a promotion in your future (gao means “higher”). As a young girl, “I had no idea what a promotion was,” she says now, but at the time it hardly mattered.
In her new cookbook, “Dumpling Daughter: Heirloom Recipes From Our Restaurants and Home Kitchens,” Spellman tells many childhood stories about entertaining herself with Barbies and coloring books in the restaurants, working at the establishments, what she learned from her mother, and her late father, Edward Nan Liu, launching her own places, and as an adult, mastering the dishes that brought her parents fame.
Growing up, Chinese New Year, she says, “was a big deal in our house, but not in our restaurants.” In the 1980s, she says, not many people outside her culture were interested in how Chinese celebrated a holiday. There wasn’t a special menu at the restaurant, the way there is now at her Dumpling locations. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and her mother opened another Sally Ling’s in Fort Lee, N.J., operating it for almost two decades. It wasn’t until 1998 that Ling decided to offer a Chinese New Year menu, complete with a lion dance in the dining room.
Today Chinese restaurants go all in at the new year. The first day is Jan. 22; celebrations last for 15 days. And though the dishes vary, most menus will include dumplings, spring rolls, and extra-long noodles made especially for the holiday. The centerpiece of many festive dinners is a whole fish with its head and tail intact. Spellman remembers her mother steaming the fish, which didn’t quite fit into the pan, so the tail hung over the edge.
Spellman skated competitively from ages 8 to 12, training for the Olympics, living with a family in upstate New York, hoping for a place on the US Figure Skating team. When that didn’t seem to be in the cards, she returned to Weston for middle school. She first met her husband, Kyle Spellman, in seventh grade. They have two sons, Julian, 6, and Dillan, 2.
Dumpling Daughter began in Weston in 2014. “I am not a Chinese chef by any means,” says Spellman, who sent her business plan to her mother, along with the menu, looking for her recipes. “I need you to cook the dishes,” she told Sally Ling.
Her mother’s response to opening a restaurant: “I told you not to do this!”
The first location offered specialties such as Grandma’s Beijing Meat Sauce, made with ground pork and five-spice tofu, served with spaghetti. Wonton soup was on the menu, along with vegetable spring rolls, a variety of dumplings, steamed buns, pork ramen, wok-roasted green beans. Spellman expanded Dumpling and launched a second location in Kendall Square, a third in Brookline. The dumplings are now the focus of a separate venture, sold frozen and ready to cook, as are Chinese buns and a line of dipping sauces, including a popular spicy-sweet soy dipping sauce.
When Dumpling closed during the pandemic lockdown, Spellman started online cooking classes and used the Kendall location as a commissary to bottle the dipping sauce. Next door to the Kendall restaurant is VESTER, owned by Spellman’s sister Nicole Liu.
One recipe in “Dumpling Daughter” is an easy and impressive steamed fish, for which you used boneless pieces. They’re garnished with ginger, scallions, and soy sauce, then drizzled with smoking hot oil, which sizzles and crackles, crisping the garnishes. It’s a pro technique that makes the home cook feel like a chef. “A traditional dish would call for a whole fish,” writes Spellman, “but we use filets to make it more approachable.”
Like many recipes in the book, if you prep all the components and have everything ready, the actual cooking time is brief. If you want a dish for Chinese New Year dish that features long noodles, Spellman suggests Shrimp Lo Mein with Spaghetti. (Before learning her mother’s recipes, her strong suit was Italian cuisine.) You cook Italian spaghetti and toss it with a shrimp sauce and lots of vegetables — scallions, carrots, red onion, and Napa cabbage.
Sally Ling’s Fried Rice is a wonderfully light, very flavorful mixture with hardly any seasonings, no soy sauce, but plenty of eggs, shrimp, chicken, and ham tossed with white rice.
Much to her surprise, Spellman discovered that her mother loves a shortcut. Ling sent Spellman a recipe for the fried rice, written without exact details. It called for diced carrots, so Spellman carefully cut up a carrot and added it to the mix. She sent her mother a photo.
“You know you can take the easy way out,” her mother counseled. “Find the frozen. It’s so much prettier and easier.”
Spellman is not one for taking the easy way out. But for her mother’s fried rice, Birds Eye will do nicely.
Dumpling Daughter locations in Weston, Cambridge, and Brookline will offer a Chinese New Year prix fixe dinner for four ($88), take out and dine in. Go to www.dumplingdaughter.com.