The Art of Dumpling Making with Karen Hoefener
April 6, 2023 @ 10:00am
The founder of NOMAD Dumplings offers classes where she teaches novices to make colorful, vegan dumplings.
The last time Karen Hoefener taught a cooking class was a decade ago in Beijing. But you wouldn’t have known this by attending her dumpling making class at Mess Hall. She’s a natural teacher, a smart entrepreneur and a breadth of warmth. And even though I left at the end of the night with dumplings that closely resembled overflowing money bags, I feel like I made a friend that night.
NOMAD Dumplings’ specialty is colorful, ethically sourced, vegan dumplings and is made with love right here in D.C. Hoefener co-founded the business with her longtime childhood friend, Susan Zhu. When you hear NOMAD Dumplings, think travel, personal story, community — all distinctive qualities that inspired this company.
Hoefener’s friends and coworkers taught her how to make dumplings in China, where she lived and taught English in her early 20s. Dumplings were one of her favorite foods growing up, and she immediately fell in love with how the pinching and making of dough intrinsically brought people together.
“Every Friday night, I would go to the same dumpling shop, and so my friends and I would walk there every Friday, hanging out there for hours,” she says. “I have these great memories associated with it, and then when I moved to Beijing, colorful dumplings were really popular, so I loved that.”
After moving back to New York City a few years later, Hoefener found a lack of vegetarian or frozen dumplings. She reunited with Zhu in the city, and NOMAD Dumplings was born.
At the Mess Hall class, Hoefener provided three plant-based fillings: chickpea, chicken, pork and kale. And of course, these dumplings wouldn’t be NOMAD-approved if not for their colorful dough. The batches we worked with were yellow, green and pink, organically colored by ingredients like turmeric.
The group consisted of novice dumpling makers, me being one of them. With dumpling making being such a vehicle for fellowship, it’s no wonder there were mostly couples, with friends scattered about. As the night progressed, the laughter and chatter drowned out the classic pop music.
I was ecstatic to attend this class, as I’d never made Chinese dumplings before and wanted to experience a part of the Chinese culture my adopted family hadn’t shown me. I was hoping I’d be a natural dumpling artist, but that was definitely not the case. Balling the dough between my hands and rolling it out into small circles closely resembled my Play-Doh days — easy. But perfecting the dough-to-filling ratio and carefully sealing the dumpling with folds (Hoefener taught us the one-directional pleat technique) was a bit trickier. It definitely takes gentle hands, patience and focus.
Hoefener was with us all the way, running from table to table with her hair up, smile on and helping hands ready. She encouraged creativity and fun, leading to creations like tie-dye dumplings.
Nine years ago, she’d made the move to the District, a place she believes is perfect for running a small business.
“D.C. has some good support systems,” she says. “A lot of us that are in this world [of] food entrepreneurs, all of us are friends and help each other. I don’t know if in other places you can find stuff like that. It’s a very collaborative city overall.”
Hoefener now wants NOMAD Dumplings to branch out. In addition to their current line inspired by Chinese flavors, she says she wants to expand into making a vegan kreplach, a Jewish dumpling, and an American dumpling based on a city she has yet to reveal.
From teaching English in China to starting a business with her childhood friend, Hoefener is always hustling, finding a way to create meaningful connections and staying authentic in the business world.
You can find NOMAD Dumplings in GTFO It’s Vegan, Gorillas Grocery App, Whole Foods, Dawson’s Market, Roots Market and Streets Market.
Mess Hall: 703 Edgewood St NE, DC; @messhalldc // messhalldc.com