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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Centre stage: Jiao Zi

Chinese New Year reunites the family through food

Chinese New Year celebrations reunite the whole family, and as is often the case when Chinese families get together, food takes centre stage. Most likely, there would be a bunch of little dishes, including fried rice, meatballs, a few vegetable and tofu dishes, a soup … but that’s not what we’re here for. Everyone is waiting for just one thing, the Jiao Zi, that is, the dumplings. On top of being the tastiest thing you’ve ever eaten, they are also a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. Before you devour them, let me tell you how you get there, since making these dumplings is at least as important as eating them and in most families it’s an enterprise that involves everybody.

You may perhaps remember the dumpling scene in the movie Crazy Rich Asians which shows the importance of making dumplings together as a family in Chinese culture. For those who haven’t seen it, they’re all sitting around the table and are diligently making one dumpling after the other while talking about the importance of family traditions. Well, in non-crazy-rich Chinese families, dumpling making is just as important. I can hardly imagine a Chinese New Year without spending time in the kitchen making dumplings. The point is that making dumplings requires all hands on deck, since the filling and the dough need to be made; the dough needs to be rolled out into thin little round slices; and finally, the filling needs to be folded inside the dough. And so every year under the severe stare of my mother, I try to shape my dumplings into cute little pockets. Whatever the outcome, mom will look utterly unimpressed. The grandma in Crazy Rich Asians does too, when she sees her daughter’s “ugly” dumplings. Yes, like many other things in a Chinese family kitchen, the dumpling making is only fully mastered by the grandmother, then the mother. Because yes, getting dumplings right is not simply a matter of skill, it requires mastery. To achieve the perfect dumpling, you need fingers that have done it thousands of times, you need to know exactly how much filling goes in, and how thick the dough should be. If any of these parameters are slightly off, you have failed.

Beyond the importance of making and eating the dumplings however, there is a 1800 year-long history going some way to explain their importance today. Initially invented as a frost-bite remedy during the Han dynasty by the legendary doctor Zhang Zhongjing, a pioneer of traditional Chinese medicine, they were a bit like the pills we take nowadays. Zhongjing would gather the ingredients needed for curing frostbite and would wrap them in a thin dough, boiling them so they could be delivered to patients. Since then the dish has evolved, bearing different names as dynasties passed, before settling on Jiaozi in the Qing dynasty. With time, dumplings turned into a nationwide culinary hype and even travelled beyond the Chinese borders. The Japanese Gyoza for example is derived from the Chinese Jiaozi, brought to Japan by Japanese soldiers after the Second World War. 

With their long history, dumplings also carry heavy symbolism, being a symbol for good fortune and prosperity for the year to come. It is also no coincidence that the dumplings are crescent shaped, since we are after all celebrating the new lunar year. In Chinese culture the moon is an important symbol of abundance and brightness – by eating a dumpling, you are eating harmony and prosperity! You may want a bit of this during the coming year of the ox so here is a brief recipe for beginner’s dumpling. Of course, the filling can be changed and ingredients can be added or omitted according to taste. I personally wouldn’t recommend the shrimp and would put more garlic but others would frown at me for doing so. Ultimately, it’s up to you, but a word to the wise, do not attempt to make dumplings on your own, it will be too much work. So, assemble your family for an afternoon or gather a bunch of motivated and hard-working friends and go for it!

The process of making dumplings is by no means simple – gather family and friends to help (The author at work!)

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