One of the oldest, simplest and most staple elements of Chinese cuisine are dumplings, or jiaozi. These spiced meat-filled dough pockets have been eaten by Chinese people for centuries and are still a commonly enjoyed snack throughout the Middle Kingdom.
Jiaozi generally consist of a meat and/or vegetable filling wrapped into a small piece of dough. The edges of the dough are then pinched together to form a crescent-shaped dumpling. The basic filling is most often made of ground pork mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, celery or onions and pepper, but can sometimes be made from mixed vegetables, prawns or other ingredients. The dough is made from a simple recipe of flour, water and salt.
Jiaozi are believed to have originated during the Han Dynasty in China’s northern-most provinces. The climate of the north facilitates a cuisine based on wheat and flour products, so dumplings were a very easy, simple food to create. They were also a wonderfully warming dish during the area’s harsh winters. According to folk legend, the first dumplings were invented by a famous traditional Chinese doctor who used them to cure frostbite.
In modern times, jiaozi have become the traditional snack food for Spring Festival. Chinese families usually spend long afternoons preparing and eating dumplings on the afternoon of New Year’s Day. In farming areas, the choicest meat is slaughtered and used to make the filling. The dumplings might even be frozen outdoors before they are boiled and served.
There are several ways of cooking dumplings, the most common being to boil them (shuijiao). Boiled dumplings are eaten with a small bit of broth and are dipped in vinegar or chilli oil. Another popular way of cooking dumplings is to steam them in bamboo containers (zhengjiao), and the third method is to shallow fry them (guotie). Dumplings cooked in this last style are sometimes referred to as ‘pot stickers’ because of the way that their crispy exteriors stick to the frying pan.
The name jiaozi comes from the dumplings’ shape. The Chinese character jiao is derived from the word for ‘horn’, reflecting the curved contours of the dumplings after they are formed by pinching the edges together.
Other types of jiaozi have become now become popular in other parts of the world. In Hong Kong, dumplings are a common dim sum dish, where the dough is usually thinner and more translucent and steaming is the most common way of cooking. Likewise, Japanese-style dumplings use more soy sauce and salt and strongly feature garlic, an ingredient not normally present in the Chinese version.
No matter which way you cook them, though, dumplings make a delicious, filling snack for any occasion!