Jiaozi, the stuffed dumpling adored by both Chinese and foreigners alike, is traditional fare to celebrate the Chinese New Year, or annual Spring Festival.
That is especially true in northern China, where there’s a popular saying: “Jiaozi on the first day of the Lunar New Year, noodles on the second.”
Although the succulent dumplings command an important spot on holiday menus, they are common staple throughout the year. Perhaps the one difference with the jiaozi served in family meals for the New Year is the requirement that they be made from scratch and not from frozen packaged wrappers bought in a supermarket.
“It’s always a great way to celebrate the holiday family reunion,” said Wang Fan, who returns to her hometown in Henan Province every Spring Festival. “You sit down with other family members and make jiaozi together. Some people roll out the skins, some fill and seal the wrappers, and one person is in the kitchen overseeing the boiling of the jiaozi. It really creates a festive spirit of togetherness.”
Dumplings are typically served as the clock strikes midnight, symbolizing the crossing from one year to the next. The shape of the jiaozi is said to bear good wishes for prosperity and wealth in the new year.
The fillings of jiaozi are incredibly diverse, often reflecting regional tastes and ingredients plentiful at hand. The most common fillings are Chinese cabbage, radish, fennel leaves or chives with minced pork, carrot with minced lamb, and celery with minced beef. There are plenty of vegetarian versions, including Chinese chives with egg, mixed vegetables and mushrooms.
The most common way of cooking jiaozi is to slide them into boiling water, and when they float to the surface, they are drained and serve hot with a vinegar sauce. Leftovers — and there are always plenty — are frequently pan-fried to make pot stickers.
Across China, one can find some rather unusual combinations and cooking methods. In Shaanxi Province in northwestern China, the dumplings are served in a spicy sour soup. On the coast, there’s the popular black seafood jiaozi, with wrappers made using squid ink.
Another popular version uses scrambled egg with tomato. The taste is sweet and sour. Prepared in the proper way, most of the juice from the tomatoes is drained off so that the jiaozi don’t become gummy.
Tofu is also a popular filling, often combined with Chinese cabbage or radish.
In Huaiyang cuisine, there is a variety of jiaozi that cannot be found in restaurants. It’s a tofu dumpling where the bean curd forms the skin and the filling is typically meat-based.
Making this variety of jiaozi is complicated and time-consuming, and it requires culinary skill. First, soft tofu is thinly sliced and then placed on a piece of high-quality muslin. The filling is added and the gauze is carefully folded to encase it. Then the jiaozi are steamed.
Although most jiaozi dishes use red meat and vegetables, the taste of the sea is celebrated in the coastal province of Shandong. There, two signature dumpling recipes use mackerel and cuttlefish for the fillings.
Preparing dumplings with fish fillings is tricky because all bones must meticulously be removed. Mackerel, a very common fish eaten on the Jiaozhou Peninsula, is ideal because it’s very meaty and has fewer bones. Because mackerels are fast swimmers, their meat is more solid.
The cleaned, deboned mackerel is mixed with a small amount of minced pork to give the filling some stickiness. Chinese chives are added for flavor and a pop of color. One way to reduce the strong, fishy taste of mackerel is to add a bit of water made from boiling peppercorns.
Cuttlefish jiaozi in the Shandong city of Qingdao perhaps looks unappealing but the taste is divine. The skins are black because squid ink is mixed with the flour to make the dumpling skins. The filling is a blend of cuttlefish meat and seasoned pork. Peppercorn water is also essential.
The Chinese like to debate which is better: traditional boiled jiaozi or dumplings served in soup. In some parts of China, public opinion comes down on the latter.
In Shaanxi Province, the famous suantang shuijiao, or jiaozi in sour soup, is popular. The dish dates back more than 1,000 years and uses a filling of minced lamb.
The soup base is the key to the dish. It’s prepared using dried small shrimp, toasted sesame seeds, diced cilantro and Chinese chives, beef tallow, sesame oil, spices, chili sauce, soy sauce and other aromatic flavors. This dish is perfect for warming up the body in cold weather.
In Shaanxi, people love this version of dumplings so much that they have created what they call the “jiaozi feast.”
At this banquet, only dumplings are served but they come in a myriad of forms — boiled, steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried and baked. They can be savory or sweet. There up typically 15 to 20 varieties served during this feast and each one is different.
The end of the meal is capped by what is called the “queen mother hotpot.” It uses a chicken broth to cook small jiaozi with a chicken filling. When eating this hotpot, the number of jiaozi in one’s bowl is significant. Each number represents some form of luck, but if you happen to get none, the waiters will tell you that means a carefree, long life.