food colored waters

It didn’t take long to figure out my contribution to an election night potluck: celebratory jiao zi dumplings made with bipartisan dough.

Inspiration came from the toothsome, homemade, two-tone dumplings served during a recent 9-course dinner at China Stix in Santa Clara. The meal, hosted by the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers, included a hands-on demonstration of dumpling making with owner Frank Chang and his head chef. Tucked in the corner of a nondescript strip mall, the restaurant is nothing much from the outside. Once inside, though, you’ll find some of the best northern-style Chinese food in the Bay Area.

spinach green dumplings
[Photo by Frank Jang]

Instead of green and white, though, my own dumplings would promise the peaceful, delicious coexistence of Red State and Blue State in every single mouthful. For the Republicans, I still had some powder ground from trai gac, a fruit used in Vietnam to color sticky rice a lucky red.

trai gac

For Blue State representation, I turned to local writer and cooking teacher, Linda Tay Esposito, for a small handful of bunga telang, the petals of dried clitoria flowers that are used to color sweet rice and other desserts in Malaysia. (Yes, Southeast Asians are addicted to brightly colored food.) The flowers are very difficult to obtain, but Linda was willing to sacrifice some of her stash for the Democratic cause. In gratitude, I passed along some of my Republican powder.

dried clitoria flower petals

Most natural colors are not any more difficult to use than the fake stuff in those little bottles. Most flowers, leaves or barks are best extracted during a cold-water soak. If needed, strain out the solids.

If you’re coloring rice, start with a smaller amount of colored water for soaking, to infuse as much concentrated color into the grains as possible, then follow with a second soaking before cooking. (This is a handy trick for deeper golden hues in saffron pilafs, too.) Beets, hibiscus, pandan, turmeric, ube — we’re blessed with many brightly hued foods to lend artistry to our plates.

red and blue dumpling dough

As we head into the holiday season, with lots of colorful cookies and festive breads to share, it’s time to stock up on food colorings. This year, try out natural food colors. If making your own is not appealing or possible, you can find convenient natural colors online. Nature’s Flavors offers organic food coloring in both powder and liquid forms.

undecided dumplings

As for those two-toned, Green Party dumplings at China Stix: Round up some friends and reserve a table, as a full banquet is the best way to experience their excellent variety of dishes. House favorites include the crispy-skinned duck, the tender pork spareribs cooked and presented dramatically inside a whole pumpkin, crazy flaky thousand-layer bread, and refreshing greens punctuated with extra tiny pinenuts.

China Stix
2110 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95050
(408) 244-1684

China Stix chef
[Photo by Frank Jang]

Bipartisan Dough 3 November,2008Thy Tran

  • For more information about China Stix and upcoming events hosted by the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers, visit our website at!

  • Christine

    Wow! I love the colors you achieved! SOOO vivid for natural food coloring. Do you have a source for the trai gac powder? I’d love to get my hands on some of that… It’s so hard to get a true red using most natural colors. The blue was also rockin’!


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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