Featured photo: Josh and Megan Lemon started the Southern Wok to bring their mutual love of dumplings to the masses. (photo by Marshall Hurley)
First, you want to gently wet the outer edges of the wrapper in a semicircular motion. But not too much water, or the dough will get soggy. Then, carefully add about a tablespoon of filling. Again, not too much, or the parcel won’t hold.
Next, delicately fold the wrapper in half and press the edges together where you applied the water to create a tight seal. If you’re gutsy, you can then fold over the edges, one on top of another to create a pleated pattern. As you run out of space, carefully clamp the ends so the whole thing closes up properly.
You’ve just made your first dumpling.
When Megan and Josh Lemon first tried their hand at making dumplings years ago, they said they didn’t look quite right.
“Our first dumplings were really ugly,” Megan laughs.
Now, years later, the two have folded thousands of dumplings, (“Probably over 10,000,” Megan estimates), as part of their relationship and their business, the Southern Wok, a Winston-Salem-based dim sum pop-up that focuses on bringing Chinese dumplings to the Triad, with a Southern twist.
These days, Megan in particular is adept with folding all different types of dumplings — she’s got the parcel fold, the soup-dumpling fold, the gold-ingot fold down pat. Now they call her “the dumpling master.”
“It’s my tiny hands,” she says.
But the story and the connection to dim sum stems from Josh’s family lineage. His grandmother, Irene, was born in Hong Kong and married Josh’s grandfather, Dan, or “Pops,” after they met during his time in the Marines. Although Irene passed away a few years ago from pneumonia, Josh looks back fondly at his relationship with his grandmother, who he says was the quintessential Asian caretaker, meaning she showed her love through food.
“If you were eating at her house, you didn’t actually want to finish your food or she’s going to put more on your plate,” Josh recalls. “If you’re full, just leave a few bites on there.”
After his grandmother immigrated to the US, Josh says she had a hard time staying connected to her heritage. She was brought to the “middle of nowhere, Virginia,” as Josh describes it, and helped open and operate a country store with Dan. Then, when his father was young, Josh says he didn’t feel a strong desire to connect with his Chinese background. He was a half-Asian kid growing up in rural Virginia who just wanted to fit in.
“I think my grandma struggled with my uncle and my dad having more Western ideas,” Josh says.
That meant that Josh was introduced to Chinese-American cuisine first before he really experienced the kind of Chinese food his grandmother grew up eating. The name of their business comes from his love of classic Chinese takeout.
When Josh was 11, he visited Hong Kong with his grandmother, who took him through the streets, stopping at various food vendors, introducing him to soup dumplings and bao and sweet custard buns. That experience changed his life.
“I realized that it was something that I needed to explore myself because my grandma and my dad really didn’t,” he says.
When Josh and Megan met in 2017, Josh wooed her by making her dumplings any chance he got. When they got engaged a few years later, Josh proposed to Megan over a homemade dim sum meal, complete with handmade dumplings and tea; she said yes.
“Food became our love language,” Megan says. “It’s turned into how we communicate; it’s how we show love now.”
The business got its start in 2019, around the time that Josh was taking the bar exam after law school and Megan was finishing her arts and entrepreneurship degree from Wake Forest University.
The two would go on taco and beer dates and over dinners, would often daydream about opening their own food business one day. Then the pandemic hit and to fill the time, they made their favorite food — dumplings.
“There wasn’t anywhere around here that we could get it so we made it ourselves,” Megan says.
Having experienced the more robust dim sum and Chinese cuisine scene in Virginia, the two knew that they wanted to bring something like that to the Triad, and in July 2022, the two started the Southern Wok.
As a pop-up business, the menu is streamlined with four different kinds of dumplings: veggie, chicken and cabbage, pulled pork and shrimp shumai. Other items like pimento crab rangoons and spring rolls round out the dim sum offerings. Pretty much everything is made from scratch, from the dumpling dough to the eight different kinds of sauces offered.
The menu exemplifies a balance between Chinese cooking and Southern flavors, shown through items like the pulled-pork dumplings.
“It’s me personified as food,” says Josh, who grew up smoking pork. “It’s my history and my family’s history in Virginia and what it means to be Asian American in the South.”
Other items, like the country fried rice, complete with lima beans, corn and bell peppers, and the smoked greens, which blend smoked collards and Chinese mustard greens, marry the two backgrounds.
In addition to being a physical manifestation of Josh’s identity, the blended menu allows for customers who aren’t familiar with dim sum to find ways into the cuisine.
“It was about, ‘How can we take the food we love and dim sum and get people interested in it and get them educated in it?’” Josh explains.
But the cooking styles, like the dumpling folds, are all authentically Chinese, Megan says. They use what’s called the wok hei, or a method of cooking over an open flame that imparts a smoky flavor to the dishes. Plus they incorporate key Chinese ingredients like shaoxing wine, white pepper, black vinegar and Chinese hot mustard into the food.
As part of their business, the two also offer classes that allow for those interested to experience the communal aspect of folding dumplings. In the future, they would love to own a bed and breakfast where they host dim sum on the weekends. But for now, the two are raising funds to get their food truck, which is in Virginia, fixed up and transported to the Triad so they can share their love of dim sum with more people.
Megan points out the fact that the word dim sum translated from Chinese into English means “to touch the heart.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do with this food,” Josh says.
“It’s a labor of love,” Megan says.
Learn more about The Southern Wok at thesouthernwok.com or follow them on Instagram at @thesouthernwok. On Oct. 18, the Southern Wok will host a takeover at Neighbors in Greensboro starting at 7 p.m. Contribute to the food truck fund here.
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