Hannah and Marian Cheng have long been confused about the American notion that Chinese food is greasy. That was not the case in their childhood home: The sisters grew up with a Chinese mother, Mimi, who cooked lightly and cleanly, incorporating fresh vegetables and high quality meat and fish into dishes she put on her family’s table. One of her best recipes was her dumpling, which became famous among the family’s friends, relatives, and co-workers.
The dumplings were so beloved by her daughters that Mimi continued to deliver batches of the treats even after both sisters had left the house. “Marian and I both went to college in the D.C. area,” Hannah explains. “She’d drive down with coolers of dumplings and her secret sauce. Our roommates would freak out. It was the same when we moved to the city — she’d always bring us dumplings. She was always afraid we’d be too busy at school or work to make something healthy. It gave her peace of mind that she made us something healthy to eat.”
It was then that Hannah and Marian realized the possible economic viability of the snack. “She’s a very modest woman, and she’d always say, ‘Yeah, our family and friends like it, but I don’t know if it’s good enough to sell,'” says Hannah. “But even coworkers and friends would say, ‘We’ll pay you.’ That idea started going into our heads, that this was something people might want to buy, but they don’t have access to it.”
That notion was confirmed after the pair spent months scouring Chinatown and Flushing for something similar — their mother had decided to retire from dumpling-making, and the sisters became desperate for a replacement. And the biggest problem was that the duo couldn’t find anything that matched the health benefits of their mother’s recipe. “Some places have really tasty dumplings, but at eight for $1, I mean, what kind of meat can you get for a dollar these days?” says Hannah.
So they began talking about opening their own dumpling shop, where the pouches would be stuffed with fresh, local, and organic ingredients and then cooked to order. After about a year and a half, they decided to pull the trigger: Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings opened in the East Village last week.
The sisters chose the neighborhood because “the East Village is always on the cutting edge of niche food,” says Hannah. “People in the neighborhood welcome that. It’s the foodie heart of Manhattan, and there’s a really good neighborhood feel. This is such a personal, familial concept; we needed a place like that.” They outfitted their space with a communal table and bar seating, bedecked the walls with their own artwork plus a photo a friend took in Montauk, and lined the shelves with knickknacks from nearby vintage stores. The idea, Hannah says, was to make it feel like home.
The shop is serving a variety of dumplings, including Mimi’s signature, which they’re calling the Mimi Cheng. “When we were kids, a friend had a backyard garden, and one year, she grew tons and tons of zucchini,” says Hannah. “She had her friends over and said to take it. Mom got greedy, and she came home with a Costco sized box of zucchini. So she made dumplings with zucchini and chicken. That was in about middle school, and we always requested that.” Look, too, for the reinvented classic, a mix of pork, cabbage, scallions, and ginger; the mighty veggie, stuffed with kale, zucchini, eggs, and mushrooms; and a daily market vegetable dumpling that’s made based on what’s fresh at the market. Dessert dumplings will also change, as will drinks like agua frescas and mint lemonade.
“This is a passion project for us,” says Hannah. “Neither of us had food backgrounds, but we have enough conviction about this to do it. And we hope everyone who comes feels like they’re being welcomed into our home.”
Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings is open Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2014