In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re highlighting Sister Liu’s Kitchen owner Cuiying Liu and the irresistible menu she’s created.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY HANNAH LEE
A couple with a palm-sized puppy sit at a picnic table outside of Sister Liu’s Kitchen. Using disposable chopsticks, they pick up their choice of morsel from two trays of dumplings, dipping each one into fragrant chili oil. There are immediate food-filled smiles.
Sharing food is a central feature of how Chinese people, like many cultures in the world, convey affection. Sister Liu’s, a hole-in- the-wall dumpling dive, was built around this ideology. Cuiying “Sister” Liu recalls sitting around the table at 6 years old with her parents and grandparents, learning how to make the pocket-sized delights and indulging in her mini masterpieces hours later. “It was like magic,” she says. The communal effort of enjoying a meal with one another stuck with her to this day, reflected in her eternal gratitude for tradition and family – and more importantly, dumplings.
She brought that adoration with her to North Carolina when she moved here from Harbin, China, in March 2013. She admits she never thought she would open a restaurant, but her dumpling fan base among friends made her reconsider. “I enjoy making dumplings, Chinese burgers, noodles,” Cuiying says. “My friends love the dishes I made, and I was so happy about it, that’s the reason I opened my first kitchen.” She opened Sister Liu’s Kitchen, serving up homestyle handmade northeastern Chinese food, in October 2018 and landed on Bon Appetit’s list of the 50 Best New Restaurants in America within months. Now with a national reputation, the kitchen – small enough to fit just four employees – often gets more orders than it can handle. “We had the busiest dinner rush today,” customers might find posted on the restaurant’s Instagram, announcing they are sold out.
Once again, Sister Liu adapted to meet the needs of her growing customer base. She opened a second location in Morrisville in November 2020 and also acquired a food truck. “It’s my favorite because it can ‘fly’ to any place,” she says. She’s weathered the pandemic alongside fellow restaurant owners, but she misses the time-honored ritual of gathering around the table with new and familiar faces. “The most difficult part is I cannot have the usual contact with my customers and chat with them,” she says. For now, she lets the dumplings do the talking.