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, D.C.-based company whose all-natural, colorful dumplings can be found in the freezers of MOM’s Organic Market and Prime Corner in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood and more than 20 stores in the Washington region.
Hoefener, who grew up on Long Island, 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.
The JT caught up with Hoefener to chat about her one-year-old company.
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 be healthy.”
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. I had never had raw honey before and I was blown away at how varied the flavors can be and how deep they could be. It was amazing. I had to put that in a dumpling, and so I named it after that. So everything is named after a place and an experience.
You’ve got some unique packaging.
What I wanted in packaging was something so when people see it they feel the story. For example, the Hunan Hottie packaging, if you look at it there’s illustrations. They have bok choy because when I first moved to Hunan, the first vegetable I learned to cook was bok choy. And then there’s shiitake mushrooms on it. That’s because my Chinese teacher Dana put shiitake mushrooms in everything and she taught me how to cook for two years. And then there’s chili peppers in it because everything in Hunan has chili peppers and I loved it. I’d never really eaten spicy food before moving there. Finally, there’s plastic stools because a street vendor taught me how to cook fried rice and fried noodles, and we all sat on plastic stools drinking beer and eating fried rice.
And then every Friday, a few friends and I would go to a local dumpling shop and we’d sit on the plastic stools, eat dumplings and chat with the owner all night. I wanted to have the plastic stools in there because they tell some of my story in Hunan. So every package has like a little bit about the area. We made it red because everything in Hunan is hot. I think it was 108 degrees when I landed there. And the food is hot. I think when people see that maybe they feel part of that story, that’s the goal.
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. So the eggs we use, we get them from Green Acre Farms, which is a family-run farm in Maryland.
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 use smoked tofu that’s from New York. It’s one of my favorite ingredients and I found that it’s very difficult to find here. So I get to introduce people to one of my favorite ingredients.
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.
What has the first year been like?
We started when we had nothing. We didn’t have packaging, we didn’t have a logo, we had nothing. We signed up at Mess Hall, just started cooking in here without having any customers or anything.
We started doing pop-ups because we didn’t have the branding down yet, and once we met Spencer, our designer, we had the opportunity to really create the packaging that tells the story.
Now we’re in 25 or 26 stores. We have a few of the local markets, which I love. We have MOM’s Organic Market, we just got our first Whole Foods. So it’s been a good year. And for the future, we want more grocery stores. I definitely think this a product that can be a healthy treat to people all over the country.
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.