No matter where, when, or how, I’m always thinking about jiaozi. Or, as I can’t help but call them, “my top tasty.” They’re such a perfect meal—so easy, so quick, so delicious. You don’t even need a menu to order, just recite a couple of favorite ingredients: baicai (cabbage), qincai (celery), jiucai (leek), zhurou (pork), niurou (beef ), yangrou (mutton). Then just wait for your 1/2 kilo of sweet, succulent dough-wrapped meatballs. In one bite, you’re feasting on all the food groups combined. It’s amazing.
And even if you’re not a dumpling fiend, there is one time of year where it’s a crime not to dive into a plate: Chinese New Year. (As long as you’re in the North, that is. Traditions vary across the country.
However, I personally believe it’s a crime, wherever you are.
Here’s how it all started.
Originally, the word jiaozi, 交子, didn’t mean dumplings. It was used to describe the darkest hour, 11 at night to one in the morning, when beer and baijiu were slushing in stomachs and eyes were bloodshot and blurred. How better to soak up all that booze than a big plate of dumplings? So they added the food radical to the character for the midnight hour, and ended up with 饺子, jiaozi.
Starting in the capital Chang’an, the current Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, in the north of China, in the Han Dynasty, two thousand years ago, it was thought that eating jiaozi would bring luck, wealth, and happiness. Maybe this was because they were shaped like ancient gold ingots, or maybe just because a meal that tasty was bound to bring luck and wealth!
Gradually, it became a ritual for any special occasion: weddings, births, and most of all, the cold nights of Spring Festival. As if you need any excuse to eat these puppies.
One danger, though, is a bad dumpling. Dense, flavorless, greasy, broken, or soggy—this is the least auspicious way to bring in the New Year. The World of Chinese wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
So we called in every favor we could, and stole our way into the hallowed kitchens of Beijing’s famous China World Hotel, where jiaozi-master Chef Hao Wei met us with a smile. He stood there quietly, his round face smiling, warm and so sincere, like sadness never existed in the world. I believe that only those who can honestly smile can make delicious food. It sounds strange, but it’s true.
“The first secret,” he whispered with that calm smile still on his face, “is to add some colors. No-one needs a dull dumpling.” Hao uncovered a row of bottles, filled with liquids of different colors. “Instead of water, use some juice. Watermelons and tomatoes make a great pink, for Valentine’s Day jiaozi. And if you really want to impress, how about two colors? For Year of the Tiger, maybe tigercolored dumplings. Make half of them orange, and the other half black!” He pointed to some fresh carrot juice, and pulled a package of purple rice powder from a drawer. “Children will really love them, and your dinner parties will be legendary. It’s all natural, too.”
My personal advice would be to consider the juice and the filling before you combine. Carrot juice wrappers deserve a nice meat stuffing to balance the fat-soluble vitamins. Purple rice powder, meanwhile, goes perfectly with a veggie filling. It’s good for your health, and your belly will love it.
Now, Chef Hao Wei can make a dumpling in three seconds flat. I checked his hands, but found nothing special. There’s no magic up his sleeve. He deftly drops a tablespoon of filling into a wrapper, slides his thumbs and forefingers to the sides, and squeezes. He’s like Jackie Chan in an apron and spotless toque. Even my motherin-law, a queen of the jiaozi, can’t do this. Maybe it just demands some practice, like folding a few thousand dumplings a day.
But remember: speed doesn’t affect taste the way a smile does. Wear that peaceful smile. The food knows.
Celebratory Pink Jiaozi
For the wrappers:
- Watermelon Juice
- Tomato Juice
For the filling:
- Wood ear mushrooms, minced
- Fried egg, minced
- Minced pork
- Ginger, minced
- Scallions, minced
- Vegetable oil
- Sesame oil
- Slowly pour the juices into the flour while stirring, until it all becomes a smooth dough as in the photo. Cover with plastic wrap or a wet cloth, to keep from drying, and set aside for 20 minutes.
- Mix all the remaining solid ingredients in a medium bowl, and then add salt, pepper, and oils to taste. Stir thoroughly.
- Scatter a little flour onto the dough, and then roll it into a long, round cylinder. Cut it into small sections, about 1.5cm long. Flatten each little cylinder into a thin pancake, about 6cm wide, leaving the center a little thicker than the sides to prevent it from breaking.
- Drop a spoonful of filling into the wrapper and fold, as below. (Try and get down to three seconds per dumpling, if you want to be a master wrapper like Chef Hao Wei.)
- Bring a large pot of water to boil, and then add the dumplings carefully. Stir slowly to keep from sticking. When the swollen dumplings float to the surface, take one out and press it with a finger. If it’s soft to the touch, they’re ready. Don’t forget to dip in vinegar, for a celebratory dumpling dinner.
- If a New Year dumpling breaks in the pot, don’t bring bad luck by exclaiming “Po (破)!” While it does mean “broken,” it can also mean “bankrupt.” Instead, shout a hearty “Zheng (挣)”, or “Earn some cash!” Far more auspicious.