Ah dumplings, the half-moon shaped oriental pastry that promises mouthfuls of the beautiful mix of smooth, thin wrap, and a juicy, flavourful, tender meatball with vegetables. It is a mini meal in every bite. Like Pizzas in Italy or the Fish Soup in Norway, dumplings, or in Mandarin “Jiaozi”, is probably a star representative of the Chinese cuisine. Eyes would brighten up when you mention jiaozi to any Chinese person, not only because of the taste, but also a reminder of a taste from home. Many of Chinese nationals from the north would have had good memories of the family sitting around the table to make dumplings together as part of tradition, especially during festive days like the Winter Solstice, Chinese New Years Eve, or during Chinese New Year.
From Confucian classic till now
Like many other Chinese cuisines, dumpling has a long, rich history. Some would even claim that it is over 2500 years old, from the Confucius classic “Li Ji” that records the rituals from Qin dynasty. “One portion of rice and one portion of meat, combined, then pan fried,” wrote the ancient classic. The more widely cited version of the legend, however, traces it back to about 1800 years ago in a bitterly cold winter during the Eastern Han Dynasty. Seeing many were suffering from cold bites on their ears, the respected doctor Zhang Zhong-jing came up with the idea to cure them with delicious ear-shaped dumplings stuffed with herbal medicine. It worked well, and people have been celebrating it during Winter Solstice till now. Indeed, one of the earlier names of dumplings was actually “Jiao-er”, which means “delicate ears”. Dumplings have been given different names over the centuries in different regions, but “Jiaozi”, originated from the Qing Dynasty about four centuries ago, has been kept ever since.
Unlike other national dish which has specific recipes, dumplings is more of a flexible concept with a few classic versions, but is open for innovations. Traditionally, dumplings can be stuffed with pork, beef, lamb, or shrimps, or only vegetables. Occasionally, coins, gold, peanuts and chestnuts would be put in randomly for the “lucky one”. Nowadays some restaurants even offer “dumpling banquets” that exhaust the variations in ingredients, colours and the wrapping techniques. Despite the romanticism of making dumplings from scratch with the whole family, from pressing the dough to wrapping and boiling, standardized, ready-made dumplings are widely available in supermarkets, and have been proved very popular indeed.