Caryn and I have been friends for a few years now. We met through mutual friends and bonded over our love of drunk eating (and cooking), amongst other things. She’s a fellow cat lady who has one of the smartest kitties I’ve ever seen! (Chicken knows how to walk on a leash! On the street! In New York! What!?) Recently, she’s added onto her family by adopting an adorable, deaf pup from Egypt named Moose. Sounds like the most charming sitcom ever, no? I mean, I would totally watch it.
In addition to having the cutest pet posse ever, Caryn is also the founder and creative director of NY based brand Hemsmith, creating dope minimal essentials for your forever wardrobe. All the pieces are handmade right here in beautiful NYC. Do yourself a favor and go check them out here.
Recently, Caryn and her little family moved into their new apartment in Long Island City, just a few blocks away from her factory. About a month ago, she invited a few of us over for an informal, impromptu housewarming…and to make us her favorite childhood food:韭菜盒子, which directly translates to “Chive Boxes” in English. She first described them to me as a Taiwanese Empanada…in which I emphatically responded “when and where?”
Over a tasty dinner of these gigantic, hand-held dumplings and homemade buffalo fried chicken, we chatted about her thoughts on growing up in Taiwan versus the US, environmentalism, her foray into composting as a hobby and why these Chive Boxes are so special to her. Special shoutout to our friend Cassie Lam, founder of Akin, for joining in the conversation. More after the break!
Long Island City, Queens NY
HM: So, I knew you moved around as a kid – can you tell me a little bit more about your childhood and how you grew up?
CH: I grew up in a bunch of places – but I was born in Queens and grew up in mostly in Long Island. In 9th grade i moved to Taiwan and that’s where I learned how to speak Chinese fluently.
HM: Living in both Taiwan in America – have you noticed any strikingly different contrasts between the two cultures?
CH: Actually very much so. For the most part as a society, people in Taiwan are generally a lot more considerate of their surroundings. Not necessarily in how they interact with people, but how they interact with their environment. In Taiwan, there are trash cans and recyclables on every block and everyone picks up after themselves. From my experience, it’s not the really the case here, especially in Manhattan. People don’t seem to have gratitude for their surroundings.
For example, in Manhattan, you don’t see people cleaning the subways ever. In Taiwan, there are always grandpas and grandmas cleaning subways – to them it’s a simple job that they can do after retirement and get paid for it. In New York, it seems like everybody thinks it’s below them to clean. But in Taiwan they just recognize that living harmoniously with nature requires effort.
HM: And also it’s interesting that you point out the subways cause when me and Ryan went to Japan, all the subways there are carpeted and heated and it’s so nice! If we had carpeted subways in New York I feel like there would be literal poop smeared on it immediately. It’s just such a different culture.
CH: It’s very interesting to me, and I very much wonder what about New York makes people so self-serving. It’s just as common for someone to be rude to you on the street than to be nice. I see people who clearly look like they have proper jobs on the subway, wearing a full suit, and just litter and throw things on the floor. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because here, we’re not really educated to the extent other countries are about recycling and keeping your surroundings clean…what do you guys think?
CL: I think that this disconnection to environment is what America is founded upon. Our country is so young compared to the rest of the world, it’s only 200 something years old. When this country was just getting started, we had the industrial revolution where the aim of civilization was for man to conquer nature by way of machine.
I think we’ve also convoluted our relationship to food, because you can buy things like chicken nuggets, and people have no idea what a “nugget is”. And when you start playing with language in this way, people don’t feel like what they’re eating or consuming has an impact. The industry is severing the link on purpose.
Americans are very averse to seeing blood for example. In Asian culture, it’s not uncommon for our parents to cut off a fish’s head and debone it in the sink at home. To buy something to order at the butcher. If you go to a supermarket now, it’s all so sterilized. It’s nice and clean, all the fish and meat has already been cut for you. You don’t see the head, you don’t see the eyes, you don’t see the tail. It’s this dehumanization of food that makes you feel like you don’t owe anything to the environment. The end product you see is already so perfect and you don’t see the blood and guts that comes with it.
HM: I also feel like we have it so easy now. Before, our ancestors had to farm or go out in the wilderness and maybe die just to get a meal on the table. Now you can literally order anything you can want to eat on your phone and have it delivered to you walk up apartment within the hour. We’ve been so so removed from basic survival that we don’t understand the power or gift of nature.
HM: So what made you start composting?
CH: I’m pretty sure it came into my mind recently because amazon kept recommending composting trash bags to me…I think it must have been because of my google search history cause I have never searched that on amazon…Anyway, In taiwan – it’s a very small island and it’s common law…everybody composts.
HM: So its like recycling here basically?
CH: Yea, there’s no such thing as no composting in taiwan. if you live in the countryside and you grow your own food, you burn it or compost it yourself… and in the city there’s a trash collector car that comes and plays Beethoven, so people will know to come out with their compost bag and their trash bag. It’s a regular, everyday thing.
HM: Wow, to the sound of Beethoven. classy
CH: Yea – so now, when I mix food with trash, it feels really wrong. Like wearing shoes on carpet.
HM: I saw on some documentary that in the US, they can only recycle something if its not contaminated. Like you have to rinse your milk jugs.
CH: It’s really interesting because I noticed here, nobody is taught how to recycle properly. Like if you use paper, or plastic. or metal and you don’t clean it, then you can’t recycle it. It’s the same with your compost – if you mix compostable items with non-compostable items, that compost is no longer usable
HM: …and you just wasted the little effort that you put into thinking you were recycling
CH: It’s kind of mind blowing how easy it is to contaminate something. Even if you separate out neatly your paper, plastics and metals, if you have one paper towel in the bag that’s a little wet…then it ends up in a landfill. It’s so crazy.
I started looking into composting, and I realized that I could do something as simple as chopping up my leftover produce small and bury it some dirt, that turns it in more dirt. I also looked into wormposting…but then the idea of having like –
HM: …like worms?
CH: Yea, not only the idea of having worms was hard for me to grasp, but in order to successfully wormpost it means that the worms are happy and they multiply…and then you just have a ton of worms! Also, if they don’t have a happy environment, they’ll try to escape… have you ever seen a fish trying to jump out of it’s tank?
HM: Oh god, the thought of escaping worms…very unsettling
CH: So I decided to try to do traditional composting. So I started out with one bucket and drilled some holes into it and started putting in my organic trash, but turns out I produce enough vegetable waste, so now I have three buckets
HM: Are they different?
CH: Yea – they’re 3 different stages of the compost life. So one’s heavily ventilated, one’s not ventilated, and the third is not ventilated.
VC: Talk to me about these “chive boxes” that you’re making today.
CH: So I had an auntie growing up, and I remember that we would always be doing interesting things together. I spent a lot of my time with her growing up in New York. She would always be making cool shit and working with her hands…I think a lot of who am I today is a direct result of her upbringing…100%. She had a little green house, and she grew and made a lot of her own food.
And joazi , the dumplings we had today, was something I loved eating as a little kid. She used to get mad at me cause I used to eat all the filling before we had a chance to wrap them. I loved to make these with her because I loved to play with the dough. She always used to make extra dough for me to play with when she was making these.
Now 20 years later I still remember how she would boil hot water to make the dough, and we didn’t have a kitchen-aid at the time like I do now, but she used to mix it up with her hands and pick it up and throw it down…and pick it up and throw it down…And it would make this big noise, boom… boom… boom. As a little kid that was 5-6 years old I thought that was the coolest thing.
I mean, she cooked cool shit every day but this dish in particular stood out to me. Because when we made these I got to play with my food!
Caryn’s Taiwanese Chive Empanada Mamas (韭菜盒子）
Recipe sent to me by Caryn Hsu
No real measurements here! – use more of the ingredients you love, less of those that you feel “meh” about. Feel free to sub ingredients in and experiment 🙂
For the Filling
Chives – approx 1/2 bunch
Shredded carrots – 2 carrots
Ground pork marinated with salt, sugar soy and a dash of rice wine – 1/2 lb
Soaked vermicelli – 1 cup
Soaked and diced shiitake mushrooms – 1 cup
3 Eggs – scrambled, fried into an omelet and then sliced thinly
White Pepper Powder
For the Shell
Flour – 2.5 cups
Hot water – 1 cup
Directions for the Filling:
First wash and prep all raw ingredients. Slice thinly and chop approximately 1/3” long. Beat eggs season with salt and pepper and cook over a low low flame. You want to have the egg cooked evenly in a thin layer about 1/8” thick. Once cooked, remove and julienne into 1/2” long slices. Sauté the ground pork on medium-high heat until 80% cooked, then add carrots, mushrooms and sauttee until softened. Then add chives, eggs and finally the vermicelli. Toss all together on medium heat with a few dashes of oyster sauce and white pepper powder.
For the Shell:
Add small amounts of hot water to flour and mix until it becomes a workable dough. You should be able to roll the dough out without too much extra flour on your hands. Take the dough and roll out into a log and cut into 2×2” pieces. Roll each piece out to about the size of your hand and add filling, fold over and pinch the edges together.
In a cast iron skillet (or frying pan), add vegetable and place 盒子 on medium fire and fry until each side is golden brown.
Serve immediately with chili garlic hot-sauce.