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Now reading The Story of Peking Ravioli

The Story of Peking Ravioli

How Joyce Chen introduced potstickers to 1950s Boston.

Peking ravioli are to dumplings what dollar slices are to pizza: even at their worst, they’re still good. Doughy, greasy, and crisp-bottomed, they are the kind of dumplings that beg to be chain-eaten straight from the container, on the couch.

However, just as with Hoodsies or frappes (milkshakes), it can be tough to find a Bostonian who realizes that Peking ravioli (sometimes called just “ravioli,” or even “ravs”) isn’t a term used anywhere else in the country—they’re that ubiquitous on Chinese takeout menus across Boston.

Name aside, they’re hardly unique. Peking ravioli is the same as guo tie, or pan-fried northern Chinese-style potstickers. (Peking ravioli can be served boiled, steamed, or deep-fried, but it’s generally agreed upon that pan-searing brings out their best soft, crisp, juicy selves.)

To delve into their name, though, is to get a glimpse of Boston’s culinary past. And as with much of the Chinese food in the area—from moo shu and Peking duck to scallion pancakes and the all-you-can-eat buffet—it all starts with Joyce Chen and her seminal Mandarin restaurant, Joyce Chen Restaurant, which she opened in Cambridge in 1958.

JC in 390 Dining room 1973

In the era B.C., or Before Chen, Chinese food in Boston meant egg foo yung and gloppy chop suey. In Saugus, what’s now the over-the-top tiki fantasyland known as Kowloon was on the cusp of introducing pu pu platters and mai tais to suburbanites. More adventurous eaters could find Cantonese cuisine in Chinatown, but traveling there at the time was a sketchy endeavor due to the neighborhood’s proximity to the “combat zone,” aka Strip Club Central. “It was by contiguity that Chinatown took this on. It was part of general Boston sleaze,” says Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University. “In the fifties, we still had blue laws and the Anglo supremacy of Boston culture, saying ‘That’s not what we do.’”

This mentality also helps explain why Boston was so far behind diverse epicurean centers like San Francisco and New York when it came to adopting regional Chinese food, White says. “The Anglo dominance in Boston meant that we weren’t supposed to pay too much attention to food anyway,” she says. “Boston was very politically against taste and expanding our horizons.” Even through the seventies, Chinese takeout in Boston often came with sliced French bread instead of rice, which was available on request.  A heavily Irish-Italian population at the time didn’t consider a meal a meal unless bread came with it—and so it did.

Chen, who was born in Beijing and later lived in Shanghai, moved to Cambridge in 1949. Opening Joyce Chen Restaurant meant introducing a number of northern Chinese-style dishes that Bostonians had never seen before—including guo tie. Chen’s son, Stephen, says that his mother waffled back and forth on what to call them. “She was contemplating the difference between ‘dumpling’ and ‘Peking ravioli.’ She was afraid people would think of an American dumpling, like you’d get at Cracker Barrel—a thick, doughy, noodly thing,” Stephen says. “She really wanted to say something about it that [implied] it would have a filling in it.”

Ravioli seemed like it would have a better shot at communicating the filled nature of the thing, and Peking was a shout out to Beijing, where Chen was born. But “ravioli” wasn’t even a widespread term yet, according to White. “We in Boston began to know ravioli in the mid-sixties. Only Italians knew ravioli,” White says. “[Chen] was borrowing from a cuisine which was just becoming fashionable across [ethnic] borders to represent her cuisine, which was just becoming fashionable across borders, too.”

Joyce Chen 1958 Menu page 1

On Chen’s debut menu, Peking ravioli occupied the #4 slot, just below the barbecue spareribs and above the fried wontons. A description ran beneath the entry: “Delicious Crescents—stuffed with meat and vegetables, served pan-fried, boiled, or steamed.” The original, made-from-scratch Peking ravioli were delicate creatures, with thin skins and edges that were “pleated, and almost looked like the edge of an apple pie,” Stephen says. They deviated from traditional guo tie only in their meaty proportions. “That was the primary characteristic—they were almost all meat,” White, who grew up dining at Chen’s restaurants, remembers. Dialing back the vegetable content of the dumpling helped it appeal more to American palates, and this remains true for the Peking ravioli you’ll find today, which have fillings that are almost meatball-like in shape and texture.

The name stuck immediately and survived throughout the decades, in large part due to the Chen diaspora; the cooks that moved through her kitchens eventually opened their own places, and kept the term on the menu (and, in some cases, on menu slot #4, to accommodate language barriers). Chen restaurant alumni can be traced to Mary Chung Restaurant in Cambridge, The Wok in Wellesley, and Chung Shin Yuan in Newton, all of which offer Peking ravioli. You’ll find them on the menu at takeout spots, too—though many of these thick-skinned, greasy versions are squeezed closed by machine, rather than hand-pleated, and produced by the Chinese Spaghetti Factory in Roxbury.

At its zenith, the Joyce Chen empire encompassed four restaurants, a line of cookware (including a patented flat-bottomed wok), a cookbook, a line of bottled sauces and condiments, and a PBS cooking show (find Chen’s Peking ravioli episode here). Nationally, she was seen as the Chinese answer to Julia Child—someone who introduced home cooks to the wonders of sesame oil, soy sauce, woks, and cleavers through their television screens. Chen died of Alzheimer’s in 1994, and the last of her restaurants closed in 1998.

Today, her son Stephen, now 63, runs Joyce Chen Foods, a line of condiments and frozen potstickers, from his home in Acton, Massachusetts (and her daughter Helen sells cookware). In 2006, he decided to introduce frozen Peking ravioli to his repertoire, which, after issues with FDA, are labeled as “Ravioli Peking” and now sold at the New England-based grocery chain Market Basket. Using his mother’s recipe, he manufactures them at a facility in Southern California that spits out eight thousand dumplings per hour. Since 2006, Stephen says, he’s sold thirteen million frozen Ravioli Peking dumplings—from Boston, “if you put them end to end, it would almost reach Washington, D.C.”