As with other Chinese food items, the origins of the name jiaozi (餃子) are surrounded by legend. The ideogram for horn “jiao” (角) was initially used due to the visual form – the two pointed edges are reminiscent of two horns- but was later supplanted by “jiao” (餃), and the suffix zi (子) -meaning diminutive- was added; therefore becoming jiaozi (餃子). According to another theory, the name jiaozi (餃子) derives from jiao (交) a word that indicates an old year and new year crossing, and zi (子) that indicates the time at midnight; which is why the dish became a staple at the New Year’s Day table. The character zi (子) can also mean child, therefore dumplings suggest having a child and is an auspicious food eaten on special dates. The word jiaozi also makes reference to China’s first paper money made out of the bark of mulberry trees jiaozi (交子), invented in Chengdu during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Before that, people used iron coins, which weren’t practical due to their weight. The first “jiaozi” were “exchange bills” or “IOUs” (I Owe You) that represented the promise of a merchant to pay the bills at a more convenient time in the future.
The crescient moon form of the jiaozi is reminiscent of the ancient Chinese gold ingots, which is why they symbolize wealth. Dumplings can also be stuffed with copper coins, pieces of gold or silver and even precious stones to suggest “a prosperous year ahead”. Some other fillings include peanut, since its Chinese name “sheng” also means life; jujubes “zao” and chesnuts “lizi” for auspiciousness, since their combined names in Chinese means early son “zaoizi”.
… and there were homemade dumplings
Back home, I told the cook girl to boil enough pots of water and to chop enough pork and vegetables to make a thousand dumplings, both steamed and boiled, with plenty of fresh ginger, good soy sauce, and sweet vinegar for dipping. Hulan helped me knead the flour and roll out the dough into small circles.
I admit I was at first impressed by her cooking skills. She worked fast, pushing hard against her rolling stick. She was able to roll out three skins for every two that I made. And she always grabbed just the right amount of meat filling to dab in the middle of the skin, never having to add a little more or take a little off. With one pinch, she closed the dumpling off.
The Kitchen God’s Wife, Amy Tan
If I had to express our ayi Xiaowen’s efficiency and speed when preparing jiaozi, I would say, she is even faster and more skilful than Hulan. Aiming at achieving similar results on my first attempt, was naïve at best. The swift moves of the rolling stick and the exact sealing techniques are not easy to replicate, even more so when it goes hand in hand with trying to understand instructions and mumble responses in Chinese. Making dumplings is time-consuming and demands concentration, experience and dexterity. For each 5 beautiful, perfectly sealed identical dumplings Xiaowen produced, I managed to present one odd looking mutant-like bundle, each one completely different from the next one. Who made what, was apparent to the naked eye. It was not my proudest moment. Nevertheless, practice, obstinacy and observation of certain “golden” rules help. The results of the next attempts were more promising each time. The last time I even got a “hen hao” (very well) and “hen piaoliang” (very beautiful), compliments all the more valuable since they came from a woman of few words. Hence, the “musts” for succulent dumplings are:
- Homemade dough (the bought wrappers will be of even thickness and not thicker in the center and thinner on the outer part)
- Cold water for boiled jiaozi (in order to withstand the pressures of boiling, these dumplings require thicker skins, which is made from cold-water dough)
- Hot water for steamed and fried jiaozi (frying and steaming are gentler cooking techniques, so pan-fried and steamed dumplings require thinner skins made from hot-water dough)
- The right meat (not too lean, it needs to have a little fat in order for the stuffing to be tender)
- Addition of meat or vegetable stock for the filling (the liquid will make the meat more delicate and tasty)
- Not changing directions when mixing the meat with the other ingredients (the stirring step should take around 15 minutes, I am not kidding, in this way the fat and protein will bind together and the stuffing will emulsify. Changing stirring directions will break the meat and make the stuffing watery)
- Addition of vegetables at the end (the addition of salt to the stuffing can cause vegetables to release water, we want to prevent the stuffing getting soggy, so we add the salt to the vegetables in a separate bowl and eliminate the released liquid. Also, the addition of the vegetables at the end, particularly greens, will preserve their color after cooking)
- Perfectly sealed dough, 11 times pressed jiaozi (I have never nailed this step).
- Presentation (avoiding mutant-size odd-looking dumplings)
- Size matters (bite size jiaozi that can be eaten in one attempt are perfect, in this way the stuffing will not fall and we will not have troubles picking up the pieces of the open dough)
It all seemed overwhelming to me at first and many may wonder “Is it not easier to just go out and eat dumplings in a restaurant?” The answer is “No”, and here is why. Homemade dumplings just taste better, since we use the best ingredients out there. My husband is the reason why I attempted this project in the first place. He loves jiaozi probably as much as he loves Polish blueberry pierogi. Yes, blueberry pierogi are a real thing, and contrary to what many may believe, they are a main dish – and not a desert.
Back to the part where I wondered how a “traditional” Chinese New Year’s Eve celebration looks like, I think we got lucky this year. We will not be in China but will spend it in a tropical paradise, together with good friends, most of whom are Chinese. With a few other thousand of Chinese nationals (all spending the holidays on this island as well), chances that we will have some nice Spring Festival dishes here are high. Maybe we will even get to eat some fresh fish and jiaozi? Wealth and abundance cannot be overrated, so I hope somebody remembers to throw a peanut or a coin in one of our dumplings, you know, just to make sure we will be blessed this year.
Recipe for “Better” Jiaozi
Adapted from Fuchsia’s Dunlop Recipe
Ingredients for around 30 dumplings:
- 3 cups plain flour (around 400 g)
- 1 – 1¼ cups of cold water (around 250 ml)
- 500g minced beef
- half a leek finely cut (300 g)
- coriander, finely chopped (200g)
- small piece of ginger (unpeeled), chopped into small pieces
- ½ small egg, beaten
- 2 tsp Shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp chicken stock
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- light soy sauce
- In a bowl, sieve the flour and slowly add 1 cup of water. With the help of a pair of chopsticks mix to incorporate both ingredients. Knead until dough becomes soft and elastic then cover with a damp cloth and let sit for 60 minutes.
- In a bowl, place the chopped leeks and add a little salt.
- In a large bowl, place the meat, the ginger, one third of the leeks, wine, stock, sesame oil, salt and pepper and mix well for 15 minutes (not changing directions). Cover with foil.
- Divide the dough in two parts. Leave one half in the bowl (covered) and work with the second half. Shape dough into a ball, carve a hole in the middle and with circular movements slowly shape the dough into a circular log (about 2-2.5 cm in diameter).
- Over a lightly floured surface, cut the log in 2 equally long pieces.
- With a knife, cut the dough into 2cm pieces, giving the log a half roll between cuts to stop it from getting flatter with each cut.
- Sprinkle flour over the cut pieces and then flatten each one into a disc with the help of the palm.
- Roll each disc into a flat wrapper about 7cm in diameter. The best way to do this is to cradle the far edge of a disc in your fingers while you roll from the near edge into the center using a Chinese rolling pin, turning the disc between rolling movements. You will end up with a slightly curved disc that is thinner at the edges than in the center.
- Add the rest of the leeks to the pork mixture.
- Fill every disc with about 1 tbsp. of the stuffing in its center. Bring the opposite edges of the wrapper towards each other. Lay the dumpling in the left hand and pinch the wrapper at the right end. Continue then pleating the far edge of the wrapper against the near edge (press firmly both edges after each pleat). Another option is to just seal the jiaozi without doing the pleats, just pressing the opposite edges together around the plumpness of the filling. Place dumplings on tray. (We recommend watching an instructional video for this step)
- The same wrappers can be used to prepare pot-stickers (which to me are much tastier than boiled dumplings and the sealing process is much much simpler). Place the filling in the center of the wrapper and lay the dumpling in the left hand. Bring the edges of the wrapper together and press firmly, the should resemble an Italian canolo. Place dumplings on tray.
- When the tray is full, place the dumplings for 5-10 minutes in the fridge. This will help them seal tightly.
- Boil water in a large pan. Drop dumplings and cook them for four to five minutes. They will be ready when they start floating.
- If you are making potstickers, brush pan with oil and place dumplings one next to each other. Fry one side until slightly golden-brown (around 2 to 3 minutes) and then turn pot-stickers to one side, then to the other. When both sides become golden-brown and crispy they are ready.
- Serve with laba garlic or with Chinese vinegar or soy sauce.
Photos: Dominika Mejia