If you ask Mary Yau, the dumpling is a perfect metaphor for the life she’s lived.
The mother of two was born and raised in Manchester, in the northwest of England by her parents, who had emigrated from Hong Kong. Thus Yau grew up with her feet in two worlds – one where Chinese was the only language spoken at home and the entire family helped out in the family’s Chinese restaurant business, and one where her classmates spoke English and she wanted a life of travel and big city existence.
And so the dumpling, with its malleability, is a chameleon just like Yau.
“Every single culture has a dumpling,” Yau said. “We call it different things, but every culture has a version of a dumpling and I just like that.”
That’s how Yau came to start her own dumpling business. She now cooks and sells under the name Mary Dumpling. She only started the Upstate-based business this past August, but this year has committed to growing it. Her primary vehicle thus far has been pop-ups around the Greenville area. Yau has held them at Mill Village Market and at M. Judson Booksellers, and more recently at Due South Coffee Roasters in Taylors. More are in the works.
Yau never set out to be in the food business. In fact, she did everything she could to remain as far removed from the industry as possible. Growing up, her parents owned a fast food Chinese restaurant in Manchester, England, a restaurant where Yau and her five brothers and sisters all had to put in time. So, Yau said, she got her fill.
“I absolutely hated it,” Yau said emphatically. “But I definitely knew what a work ethic was and what it means to prioritize, seeing my parents sacrifice a lot so we would have a better life.”
But food, Yau said, was always the connection she had to her Chinese culture. And so food was the tool she used to discover China when she studied there in college. Yau’s academic research led her on a tour up the Yangtzei River, which as it turns out, also ended up being a tour of food.
Later, Yau took a job in Shanghai, where she met her husband, fell in love with teaching, and discovered the magic of the humble dumpling.
“Everybody had their take on it,” Yau said. “They were just a really simple way of getting your protein, your vegetables and your carbs. You never felt overstuffed and everybody could afford to make them themselves. You could go as extravagant as with crab meat and lobster to very simple pork and veggie, the very classic pork and Napa cabbage.”
When Yau and her husband moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 2003, food and cooking became a way for Yau to remain connected to her Chinese heritage. And after she had her son, it also became a way to pass that heritage on. The family would, and continues to make dumplings on Chinese New Year.
But still, a food business was the furthest thing from her mind. Her days were spent teaching young children, helping develop young minds and creating excitement about learning.
It wasn’t until Yau had her daughter in 2012 that she began to think of an alternate path. The family had grown tired of Baltimore and was looking to move south. A longtime friend, who was a native of Greenville, pushed them to look at the city.
They moved in 2014.
“The environment is what drove us, and the fact we could afford to live downtown in a more family friendly and outdoorsy community,” Yau said of the move. “We joke that the first month we moved we talked to more people than we did in the entire 11 years we were in Baltimore.”
Yau knew she didn’t want to go back to teaching right away, but she also knew the family needed two incomes.
But she wasn’t keen on teaching. And so she turned to cooking, and more specifically, her longtime passion for the dumpling. After talking it over with friends and family, Yau jumped in. She registered her LLC in August.
“What have you got to be scared of?” Yau recounts of her inner dialogue at the time. “If it fails I have a lot of dumplings. So is that a bad thing? Not necessarily because that means I’ve got dinner, lunch taken care of for a while.”
Yau has slowly built up a reputation. She was featured by Off the Grid Greenville, and has held a number of successful pop-ups, with more planned going forward.
Mary Dumpling dumplings are mix of traditional and more inventive. Yau aims to use locally sourced ingredients when possible, including vegetables and herbs from her own garden. Typically, Yau prepares one type of dumpling and sometimes another traditional dish like a stew, for each service. Past offerings have included the traditional beef and Chinese chives, pork and shrimp. But Yau has also stepped outside the box with items like the cumin-scented Moroccan chicken and roasted vegetable and salmon and dill.
“I just love that format to deliver food,” Yau said. “When I was traveling the Yangtze River doing research, eating all these types of dumplings, you really could eat them breakfast, lunch and dinner.”