Karen Hoefener first landed in China in 2007 to teach English through the NGO WorldTeach, and while she was living there, she developed a serious taste for dumplings.
Now, Hoefener, 33, is the founder and chef behind Nomad Dumplings, a Washington-based company whose all-natural, colorful dumplings can be found in the freezers of MOM’s Organic Market and more than 20 stores in the Washington region.
Hoefener, who grew up on Long Island in New York, with a Jewish mother and Christian father, creates dumplings with names such as Hunan Hottie and Xi’an Warrior that capture the flavors of particular regions and experiences she had during the three years she lived in China.
Why did you start Nomad Dumplings?
I used to work in China and ate dumplings all the time, and when I came back I went to New York and I really wasn’t happy with the dumplings I was eating. I had to make them every time I wanted them or to go into Flushing. I had thought about starting my own company and I thought, “Maybe this is what I’ll do.”
I did some market research and really thought this was viable in D.C. A lot of people wanted more variety in frozen dumplings, and so I tried every frozen variety I could and found that nobody is doing colorful dough.
And when I lived in Beijing, colorful dumplings were really popular. It was a fun thing to go out for. So I thought, “Well, I could do colorful dumplings and we could have lots of veggie offerings and they could
Tell us about the names of the dumplings.
The Hunan Hottie was the first dumpling I came up with. I think I made that recipe seven or eight years ago. I wanted to do regionally inspired flavor profiles because whenever you traveled around China, everywhere you could get this amazing cuisine, and it’s different than other regions.
Hunan food is spicy, they use a lot of pungents like garlic and ginger and scallions. And then it’s actually really veg-heavy, which I loved over there — my favorite dish is probably eggplant and green beans. Plus, I lived in Hunan for two years.
The Shangrila Honey was one of the first ideas I had because when I worked in Beijing I worked for a coffee company called Shangrila Farms and we did a line of honey. So everything is named after a place and an experience.
What’s your approach to ingredients?
Every ingredient that we use is natural and everything is also vegetable-heavy. So even the meat dumpling will have more vegetables than meat in it because it tastes better and it’s better for the environment. I believe everything we use should be sustainable.
Our primary oil is grapeseed oil. It’s an anti-inflammatory oil, so that’s positive. Our product as a whole is not anti-inflammatory because we have wheat but it does help to add to the balance.
We’re colorful dumplings, but it’s all-natural coloring. We don’t use anything artificial in there because some people can’t eat it and so we don’t want to isolate anybody. And if some people can’t eat it, maybe none of us should be eating it.
Did you experience Jewish life in China?
I went to a few services in Beijing that I really, really enjoyed. I was visiting during Rosh Hashanah two years ago and went to a service there that was incredible and I found that really impactful. The rabbi who went, he’s from New Mexico and flies over every year to do them.
It’s in English, which is great, and you get a really eclectic group of people that go. And his service was really deep. It had a lot of history in it and he really brought it to modern life, and so I think it was very personal.
What do you do for fun?
I like going to the gym, so that makes me happy. I like going out to eat, and I like going out to eat dumplings. I love getting to eat dumplings that aren’t mine. The different flavors, I love that. I love having somebody else make them for me. And then I like traveling.
Marc Shapiro is managing editor of Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.
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