Having a ball on the dumpling trail
Having a ball on the dumpling trail
If New York was historically the primary gateway to America, then San Francisco was certainly a close second. In 1847, the provincial envelope of Yerba Buena had a population of just 400, crammed in to shanties clustered around a small natural harbour. It was gold that turned this village of dust tracks into the hub it is today. Though the gold was found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the bars were traded and spent here in the port.
Ships arrived full of people, and were then abandoned and sank into the mud to be claimed by the Bay. By 1850 the city population was at 20,000, mostly men. By 1860 it was up to more than 50,000. Europeans came by foot and wagon from the east; Chinese people came over the Pacific from the west. The city grew, as did the number of languages spoken within its confines – and the variety of flavours and customs at dinner tables. The Mission district was German and Irish before it was Mexican and Guatemalan. The Poles and Russians – and then the Italians – settled in North Beach.
If one dish transcends cultures, it is the humble dumpling. The predominantly wheat comfort balls are synonymous with family cooking from Warsaw to Wenzhou, Tel Aviv to Trieste. The Italians stuff pasta dough with spinach and cheese, served in brown butter and sage as tortellini, while the Guatemalans wrap corn in banana leaves to create tamales. One of the best (and most delicious) ways to explore the many cultural groups that have made San Francisco their home, is by telling their stories through their appreciation of the hearty dumpling.
On a walk down Columbus Avenue, named for the Italian-born explorer, Italian restaurants line both sides of the street. The road cuts a diagonal through the North Beach neighbourhood and its pizzerias, gelaterias and caffès. Specs, one of the strangest but most wonderful bars in the city is just down a side alley, and opposite is Café Vesuvio, once a meeting point for the Beat Generation.
Away from the hubbub of Italo-American culture you’ll find Zuni, one of the oldest of the new wave of Italian restaurants that popped up in the seventies in the city. Owner Judy Rodgers has made her mark here: the roast chicken and the ricotta gnocchi are deservedly famous. And the Lombard-style dumplings have been on the menu for nearly the entire lifespan of the restaurant.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
There has been a Jewish population in San Francisco since the city’s earliest days, when new migrants embraced the hills with other settlers and cultures during the Gold Rush, and there is now a Jewish population of over 200,000 (the third largest among US metropolitan regions).
Founded in 1984, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is dedicated to Jewish-American identity. Covering a kaleidoscopic range of artistic disciplines and media, the museum’s exhibition programme includes contemporary art and historical objects, music, film, live performance and lectures.
To extend intercultural understanding of Jewish culture in the Bay, the museum cleverly teamed up with Wise Sons, the lauded deli that serves Jewish comfort food from their mother branch in the Mission. This small outpost in the museum café offers a great matzo ball soup made from chicken broth, noodles and dumplings of egg, parsley, lemon, chicken fat and flour crackers.
Soko Hardware, Japantown
Moving from the high Victoriana mouldings and stoops of the rest of the city, a visit to Japantown can feel like entering another universe. The six or so blocks that make up Japantown are monochrome and sparse; pebbled public plazas lead to modernist temples and endless rows of sushi outlets and karaoke bars, and cherry blossoms act as a boundary around the cleanest pavements in the city. Japanese-American sculptor Ruth Asawa designed the fountains of Japantown, and these upright verticals of bent metal – origami formed from steel – used to have water trickling between the folds. Though they have been turned off due to the drought, they still retain their charm.
Dig deep into the corners of the paper lantern-lit basement of Soko Hardware and you’ll find the items that fill every kitchen in this very Japanese neighbourhood. Bamboo rolling mats, automatic rice cookers and rough ceramic beakers jostle for space with sake pourers and chopsticks painted with mini sashimi rolls. And for making your own dumplings at home, pick up the metal trays used for mochi, the sticky sweet rice buns with black bean filling that they sell over the road at Benkyodo, a diner-esque coffee shop popular with elderly Japanese couples.
Museum of Russian Culture
At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Russian aristocratic adventurer Nikolai Rezanov set sail from Saint Petersburg on a mission of exploration and scientific discovery. A grand tour of the Pacific, the odyssey would take him on a loop that passed from Japan to Hawaii, then Central America and upwards to California and Alaska.
He was welcomed to San Francisco by the Spanish comandante, Don José Darío Argüello, and then – perhaps as no more than a cleverly devised exercise of diplomacy –he fell in love with Argüello’s 15-year-old daughter. Intentionally or not, Rezanov secured a future for Russians in the city for centuries to come. In 1863, a fleet of Russian ships arrived as a gesture of support for the North during the civil war. In 1927, one of the first Russian Orthodox churches to be built outside of Russia sprung up on Fulton Street.
In 1953 the Museum of Russian Culture launched its mission to promote all things Russian and collect materials about Russian people’s impact on San Francisco and California. The archival library is a bank of literature brought over by later migrants who were escaping first the monarchists, and then the Bolsheviks. Also in 1963, the Cinderella Bakery opened its doors on the other side of Geary Boulevard. One of the oldest Russian bakeries in the US, this institution serves traditional poppy seed rolls, Napoleon cake, apple turnovers and piroshki, as well as stroganoffs and vareniki, potato dumplings also known as pierogi.