Several Chinese snacks have been known in English as “dumplings”. Of these, jiaozi is taken by the northern Chinese as a symbol of festivity and served as the main dish for the Spring Festival or traditional New Year’s Day.
The annals of a northern country have this record from the early Qing Dynasty: “On New Year’s Day the family share a sumptuous dinner at which various types of dumplings are served. They are called jiaozi because they are eaten at a time when the New Year is ushered in and the old sent off.” In the vast areas of North China, especially in the countryside, jiaozi is not only eaten at the New Year but also served on ordinary days when there are guests for dinner. In provincial towns and market villages, many eating-places specilize in this dish.
Jiaozi dumplings are made of a paste wrapper with seasoned mincemeat as the filling. They are usually in the shape of a crescent moon. Cooked in boiling water for a few minutes, they become “boiled dumplings” and are ready to serve. If steamed under cover, they are called “steamed dumplings”.
A great range of food may be used as the principal material for jiaozi fill: minced pork, mutton or beef, minced prawn or shrimp, vegetables and dried mushrooms. The usual seasonings are soya sauce, salt, sugar, minced scallion and ginger root, peanut and sesame oils. Dumplings are particularly tasty because in the process of boiling or steaming the steam generated inside the wrapper does not escape, keeping the flavour inside and the fillings tender.
From a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) tomb excavated in 1968 in Xinjiang, a wooden bowl was unearthed, containing a number of dumplings which look exactly the same as today’s jiaozi. This testifies that dumplings had been introduced to the northwestern region of ethnic minorities by the Tang Dynasty at the latest.
Another type of Chinese dumplings is called huntun (or wonton). It is made in a similar way as jiaozi, but the wrapper is thinner and contains less filling, folded in such a way that it leaves a loose flap.
Huntun is always boiled and served about a dozen in a bowl of instant soup seasoned by sesame oil, soya sauce, a pinch of shredded parsley or some other dried vegetable.
Huntun is popular not only in the north but also in many southern parts of China. It was customary in old Beijing for people to eat huntun at the winter solstice.
The origin of huntun has remained obscure. A Song Dynasty (1960-1279) work suggested: “It is called huntun because it was first made by the Hun and Tun clans of the northern parts outside of the Great Wall”. There are, however, others who would not endorse this opinion.
Yuanxiao is a special dumpling in China for the Lantern Festival (the 15th night of the 1st lunar month). It is a “ball” made of glutinous rice flour.
Yuanxiao, it is said, made its debut in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) and became popular during the Tang and Song periods (7th to 13th century), but not under its present name. The Notes of the Year in Hubei, a book by a 10th century xcholar, mentioned “bean-paste-filled cakes” which were made on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month and, in another context, “floating cakes in thin gruel prepared at the middle of the first moon”.
As the 15th night of the New Year was later called “Shangyuan” and the “Yuanxiao” festival, so the dumplings came to be known by the name of the festival.
Yuanxiao dumplings fall into two categories.
One is without fillings. A suitable amount of water is mixed into glutinous rice flour to make dough, which is then shaped by ahnd into small “solid balls”. The balls or dumplings are boiled in sweetened water and, when cooked, are served in bowls. They can also be boiled in plain water and then sprinkled with sugar in the serving bowl. A third way of prepareation is to cook them with dried longan pulp, candied dates or jujubes and similar ingredients to make a kind of porridge of assorted balls. Sweetened with sugar and osmanthus flowers, it makes an excellent dessert.
Another category of dumplings is with fillings, which may be either sweet or salty in taste. For the sweet variety, the filling may be sugar, walnut meat, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean or jujube paste, used alone or in combination. The salty variety can be filled with mincemeat, certain vegetables or a mixture of both. In either case, the materials are minced and well mixed with flavoursome seasonings.
The way to make stuffed dumplings also varies between the north and the south. The usual method followed in southern provinces is to shape the dough of rice flour into balls, make a hole in each and insert the filling inside, close the hole and smooth out the surface by rolling the ball between the hands. In the north, where sweet and non-meat stuffing is normally used, people pressed the fillings into hardened cores, dip them slightly in water and roll them in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour. A layer of the flour will be stuck on the fillings, which are dipped again in water and rolled again in the rice flour. And so it goes on snowballing until dumplings grow to the desired size.
Yuanxiao dumplings must be boiled in the right way. First bring a pot of water to a boil on strong fire. Drop in the dumplings gently and, when they float up on the water a few minutes later, keep them in the pot for a few more minutes to make the inside well cokked. But at this stage, the fire must be reduced, for dumplings boiled in rolling water may burst open. To make sure that this does not happen, some cold water may be added little by little into the pot to keep the water simmering instead of boiling.