For TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces some archive, some new have stood the test of time. First up was Katy Brett, then Genevieve Dutton, Dawn Worsley, Kat Bazeley, Meg Brooks, Susan Hay and cook Rachel Roddy. In the winter just passed, Mina and Elena met with the poet and writer Nina Mingya Powles in north London. Below is her story.
Nina Mingya Powles' winter coat is the colour of forced rhubarb. Yesterday she wore it with a green scarf flung around her neck and the greengrocer remarked on how she resembled the rhubarb she was buying, glowing in hues that seemed at odds with the time of year. Given it is summer back home in New Zealand, Nina's colour scheme perhaps reflects her season in spirit.
The coat is a second hand Toast piece from several years ago, which Nina found in a charity shop near her home in Gospel Oak, north London. I made a beeline for it, she says, I think I even wore it out of the shop. It's not a colour she's seen in Toast recently, and with her penchant for warm tones she has a spectrum of pinks, purples and reds in her wardrobe she leapt at the opportunity. Now, in winter, she throws it over everything, to work at the National Poetry Archive or for walks on Hampstead Heath on her days off. Inside, when she is writing, her London uniform is a turtle neck with a high-waisted skirt or trousers.
We meet in Nina's flat, which overlooks the south side of the Heath. She lives here with her boyfriend, David, who she met while they were living in Shanghai. Parliament Hill lido is so much on their doorstep that we glimpse a few brave midwinter swimmers and, on the fields that lead up to what is arguably London's best view, weekday dog walkers amble with motley packs of clothed hounds. Even the dogs are suited and booted in NW3.
Nina has cooked Chinese dumplings for me, the dough made from a special, highly glutinous flour that's mixed with water, then rolled into flat discs with a little rolling pin. I watch as she assembles them, filling each disc with a mixture of shiitake mushrooms, tofu, peas, ginger and garlic, then sealing it into a half moon.
For Nina, cooking has been a route to exploring her Chinese roots. As a child, she and her family moved between New Zealand, the US and China but, like many children who grow up around multiple languages her father is white Kiwi, her mother Malaysian-Chinese she resisted learning the one that her peers didn't speak. She has made up for this since, with a year-long language course in Shanghai and, while living in the UK, volunteering with the Ming Ai Institute, a north London-based community charity that tours the country teaching year 7 students about Chinese food.
I ask Nina if she learnt to cook dumplings from her mother. She smiles, No, my mum finds it funny that I like to cook slow, labour intensive things like this she's always really busy so tends to favour things she can do quickly. She associates the likes of crispy noodles with her mother's cooking, also curry puffs (a Malaysian thing) and congee, which is usually the product of something really un-Chinese, like a roast turkey after Christmas, we'll have turkey congee from the bones for weeks.
Nina largely taught herself to cook, but was unable to do so as an undergraduate. Living in a dorm room on the Wellington university campus, she made up for the lack of kitchen with a food blog about everything I ate. These early years as a food writer have segued into a book her first long prose project called Tiny Moons, which was published in February 2020 by independent publishing house, Emma Press. It's part food diary, part travelogue, says Nina, and covers meals eaten in Shanghai, in Wellington, and a few places in between. It's an exploration of my heritage through food you could say it's about food and belonging or a book of essays about dumplings and noodles.
Such modesty belies not only Nina's talent but prolificacy, too. Last year, she contributed an essay to Daunt Books' collection about swimming in the Hampstead Ladies' Pond. She recently won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing judged by, among others, Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun for which she was awarded a book deal with Canongate. Small Bodies of Water is a book of essays about swimming, migration, language, and growing up mixed race published next year. She also did an MA in Creative Writing, for which her thesis, Luminescent, took the theme of women in New Zealand's history; writer Katherine Mansfield is the best known, but also included were dancer Phyllis Porter, who died onstage when her dress caught fire at Wellington opera house; astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley; Betty Guard (who lived on a whaling station on the south island); and the rumoured ghost in Nina's own school's tower. I like writing about other women, she says, but my work has turned into me writing more about myself exploring my identity I guess somewhere along the way I figured out how to gain access to that stuff.
And then there is poetry, a constant for Nina. She regularly publishes collections that she binds herself and, in 2019, launched Bitter Melon, a small printing press that publishes limited edition handmade poetry books by Asian diaspora writers. There is something reassuring about the obvious ascent of a talent who thinks mostly in terms of good taste and good values, less commercial opportunity.
Speaking of good taste, the dumplings emerge - half of them fried, the other half boiled. The boiled comfort, the fried seduce. We make our own dipping sauces I start with just sour Chinese rice wine vinegar (Beijing style), then add soy. It is a delicious lunch.
We talk about Nina's wardrobe, which, she says, differs in London from what it was in Wellington. Partially, that's the weather. In Wellington, you're at the mercy of the wind, and whatever you wear has to withstand many seasons in one day. There's more of an intrepid look to how people dress there! Here, I feel inspired to make more effort well-put-togetherness is a very London thing not something I'd thought much about before and I'm finding ways of doing that with coats. Layers and long jumpers bring outfits together.
She shows me another Toast piece, one she treated herself to last summer, a linen-cotton, charcoal-coloured dress that ends mid-calf. I'm wearing longer dresses and skirts now. Maybe that's a London thing for me. It feels very elegant, a bit Bloomsbury set. The appeal of this is unsurprising, given her self-confessed affinity with Katherine Mansfield. "Maybe it's a bit of a cliche, says Nina, clearing up the dumpling dishes, the soy sauce bowls, but I discovered Mansfield lived nearby on East Heath Road for a while, and that she wrote about New Zealand after moving to London I feel a sort of kinship with her. She disappears into the kitchen and returns with, you guessed it, forced rhubarb for pudding.
A Recipe for Mushroom, Tofu & Pea Pan-Fried Dumplings (guotie , literally potstickers in Mandarin), written for TOAST by Nina Powles.
(To make vegan dumplings, simply omit the beaten egg and oyster sauce, and replace with 1/2 tsbp extra soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine.)
For the wrappers
Use one 200g pack of dumpling wrappers, found in the fridge and freezer section of East Asian supermarkets. Or make your own:
(makes about 25 dumplings)
2 cups dumpling flour, if you have it, or all-purpose flour
2/3 cup lukewarm water this may vary, depending how dry/humid your climate is
In a large bowl, slowly combine the water with the flour. Draw together with your hands to make a smooth (but not sticky) dough. Knead for a few minutes, then cover and leave to rest for half an hour. The dough should be soft and pliable.
On a floured surface, divide the dough into four equal pieces and roll each piece into a long sausage about 2cm thick. Cut into 2cm gnocchi-like chunks.
Roll the chunk into a smooth ball, then flatten with your palm to make a disc. Using the very edge of a rolling pin, roll the disc into a 9cm diameter circle. You want the centre of the circle to be a bit thicker than the edges, since this is the part that holds the filling.
Lay the wrappers on a board and sprinkle with plenty of flour to prevent them sticking while you get on with chopping.
For the filling
100g mushrooms, finely chopped (fresh shiitake, oyster or brown mushrooms are best)
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 spring onion, finely chopped (green & white parts)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 thumb-tip sized piece of ginger, finely chopped
150g silken tofu (about half a block)
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
A pinch of salt & white pepper
A pinch of Chinese five-spice powder
1 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil, for cooking
1 cup water, for cooking
1 tbsp soy sauce & 1/2 tsbp Chinkiang black vinegar, for dipping
Mix the chopped mushrooms, garlic, ginger, spring onion and silken tofu together in a large bowl. No need to chop the tofu; it will fall apart and bind everything together to form a paste.
Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, beaten egg, oyster sauce, five-spice powder, and salt and white pepper into the bowl, and mix.
To fold the dumplings, dip your index finger in a little cold water and brush your fingertip around the edge of the dumpling skin, making a glue. Place a teaspoon of filling in the middle. (Folding is easiest if you start with less filling than you think you need). Pinch the two sides of the wrapper together at the centre, in a half-moon shape. Pinch the sides together in two or three "pleats" but it doesn't have to be pretty; it only has to be sealed.
If using homemade dumpling wrappers, pop each folded dumping on a well-floured surface, not touching each other, or they will start to stick together.
For pan-frying, you need a wok or heavy non-stick pan with a lid. Heat your wok on medium heat. Pour 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Prod the oil with the tip of a chopstick or wooden spoon when bubbles appear, the oil is hot enough (this is a classic Chinese cooking trick).
Fry the dumplings in two batches. Place 10-12 dumplings snugly in the middle of the wok. Push them firmly down to flatten their bums; you want this flat surface to get lovely and crisp. Let them sizzle for 2 minutes then carefully pour over 1/2 cup of cold water, and swiftly clamp the lid down.
Leave the lid on as they steam for 5-6 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated.
Remove the lid and check whether the dumplings' bottoms are lovely and golden. They may need another 1-2 minutes.
Before the next batch, you may need to heat another 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil in the wok.
Serve with a little dipping sauce: mix 1 tbsp soy sauce mixed with 1/2 tsbp Chinkiang black vinegar, or any good chilli oil, such as Lao Gan Ma.
Words by Mina Holland. Photography by Elena Heatherwick.
This season, we have made a dress very similar to the one Nina mentions, in olive & spice. We have also created a new version of the dress with a v-neck and capped sleeves in slate blue and tobacco. You can find our collection of Coats & Jackets here.