MANY Chinese food lovers say the beauty and variety of Chinese dumplings often is lost in translation.
Nearly all stuffed foods in China are called dumplings, although they differ in various ways culturally and in a culinary sense. The word is a huge oversimplification.
Jiaozi (饺子) and wonton (馄饨) are probably the best-known Chinese dumplings outside the country.
Jiaozi, which is a meat or vegetable filling wrapped in a flour skin in half-moon shape, is popular in north China. It is served with sauce, usually with vinegar. Wonton, with similar fillings but wrapped in a shape like a nurse’s cap, is popular in the east and south, and is served in soup.
There are many more than those two in China, and they can vary by shape and size. They can be either round or triangle-shaped. They can be also shaped like a blossoming flower, a peach, a pillow or a gold ingot. The size can be as small as a finger or as big as a human face.
The color of the dough varies, depending on the ingredients and the chef’s thinking. Using refined wheat flour leads to a snow white color. Buckwheat flour makes the dough wrapping a dark coffee color. Glutinous rice dough has a translucent white look while dough made from wheat starch can be transparent.
More chefs now prefer adding natural colorings to flour to make the dough colorful. Carrots make it orange. Bamboo charcoal powder makes it black. Purple cabbage creates a distinctive Armani blue color.
Ingredients vary, too, from north to south China, depending on regional produce.
“North China is a wheat-growing area so that most of its dumplings are made from wheat flour such as jiaozi and baozi (steamed dumpling with either savory or sweet fillings 包子) while east and south China abounds in glutinous rice, which makes its dumplings distinctive, glutinous and sticky, like tangtuan (glutinous rice ball 汤团) and qingtuan (a green colored glutinous rice ball 青团),” says David Du, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund in Shanghai.
Fillings are quite diverse and in broad terms may be either savory or sweet. Meat, fish, shrimp, greens and other vegetables, mushrooms, or even fruits and nuts create divergent tastes.
Methods of preparation and cooking determine the texture, like soft and fluffy dumplings that are steamed, crunchy ones that are pan-fried and crispy ones that are deep-fried.
It’s impossible to present all the dumplings in China but here are the highlights of some of the most classic ones.
Baozi, a kind of steamed dumpling made from wheat flour, is probably the only kind of dumpling popular throughout China, yet it varies in appearance and flavor from place to place. It’s a staple food in north China but served as a kind of dim sum, the bite-sized portions served on small plates, in the south.
In the north, baozi is larger and the fillings are diverse yet dominated by savory flavors, especially minced pork, radishes, mushrooms, cabbage mixed with rice noodles, tofu, and French beans mixed with minced pork, mutton and ground beef.
“The texture of the dough in the north is comparatively firmer due to their using partial fermentation when making the dough. That makes people feel full more readily,” says Anthony Dong, chef de cuisine at Futian Shangri-La Shenzhen in southern China, who’s known for making eye-appealing and tasty baozi.
In the south, the size of the dumpling is smaller. Shanghai xiaolongbao (finger-sized steamed dumplings served with vinegar 小笼包) is probably the smallest. The savory fillings are less varied, mainly cabbage with mushrooms, minced pork and a combination of minced chicken meat, pork and diced bamboo shoots. The fillings have a distinctive, slight sweetness from the addition of a little sugar.
There are other sweet fillings from black sesame to red beans, from lotus seeds to egg custard. The chef leaves a small hole while wrapping them that looks like a fish mouth so it’s easy to tell the inside filling.
“A fully opened mouth indicates pork, a half-opened one for cabbage with mushrooms, and a slightly opened one for red bean paste,” Dong explains.
The wrapping also is much softer and fluffier due to chefs using full fermentation in making the dough, Dong adds.
Dong explains how he judges baozi. First is the appearance.
He says that well-made baozi has around 20 folds, which are the small pleats made on the top side when folding the dough to close it.
Then comes the texture.
“If you press the skin and the skin quickly bounces back, its texture should be good, soft, fluffy and not sticky,” Dong emphasizes.
The thickness of the dough also matters.
“Only those with a skin one centimeter thick can ensure each bite has a perfect proportion of dough and filling so that you can enjoy both the flavor and texture,” Dong adds.
The legendary origin of baozi can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), when Kong Ming, chancellor of the state of Shu, was blocked by a heavy river while leading his troops. Locals tell him that only through human sacrifice could he show respect to the river god so the troops could cross. Kong, a kind man, could not bear to do that so he formed dough into the figure of a man, filled it with meat and threw it into the water. Then the whole army crossed the river miraculously. That filled dough became today’s baozi.
A story from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) adds more romance. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was once starving while he was imprisoned. His wife, Ma Xiuying, smuggled in food and made a great sacrifice for love by hiding two hot baozi beside her breasts, which were seriously scalded by the dumplings.
East and south China are known for dumplings made from glutinous rice with a distinctive aroma and a soft, glutinous texture. They are all made in a round shape, but vary in size. Sweet fillings predominate, and the glutinous rice flavor enhances sweetness.
Tangtuan is the most popular. Glutinous rice is made into flour through an old, complicated method called shui mo (literally “water mill” 水磨), which means that water is added when grinding the flour, which leads to a distinctive, fine silky texture and clean rice aroma.
Black sesame paste is the dumpling’s classic filling. It’s served in boiled water to avoid their sticking to each other. Some food connoisseurs can measure the quality of the dough not by eating it but by tasting the water.
“Lard is added into the paste to make the sesame smoother and aromatic,” says Fred Zhou, Chinese executive chef at Shangri-La Hotel, Ningbo. Ningbo, in Zhejiang Province, is known for its handmade tangtuan.
Many dim sum chefs have tried to replace lard with olive oil for health considerations but have not been successful because of how it alters the taste.
Qingtuan is a spring specialty served during the Qingming Festival to commemorate ancestors. Its dough has a bright green color, fresh leafy aroma and a unique texture, glutinous yet bouncy. It has a sweet filling usually made from red bean baste or soybean paste. Zhou says the wrapping is distinctive because wormwood leaves and japonica rice are added when making the dough.
Maqiu (麻球), a deep-fried glutinous rice ball coated with white sesame and filled with red bean or black sesame paste is a Shanghai specialty. The outside of the wrapping is crispy and the inside is smooth. The deep fried dumpling should be served hot or the taste will turn oily.
You dun zi 油墩子
The deep fried, golden boat-like dumpling is made with a mixture of sliced radish, shredded river shrimp and spring onion, coated in batter. It’s a classic Shanghai street food featuring rich textures, with the outside crispy and slightly oily and the inside fresh and crispy.
It’s an elongated, cone-like dumpling served in early summer. Glutinous rice is stuffed with savory or sweet filling and wrapped in a leaf.
Glutinous rice is sometimes flavored with soybean sauce to have a red color and salty flavor, especially when the filling is pork or salted egg yolk. Sometimes the dough is kept the original, plain color and taste when using a sweet filling such as red bean and jujube paste.
The dumpling is actually pan-fried jiaozi with a crunchy bottom and chewy dough. Fillings are savory, mainly minced pork, mutton or beef, or sometimes a mixture of minced pork and shrimp.
It is generally served with vinegar to cut through the fattiness of the filling.
Jiucai hezi 韭菜盒子
It’s a street food popular in north China, featuring a fragrant, juicy and flavorful taste. Jiucai means leek and hezi means a small box. Its Chinese name gives away its main ingredient and shape. Its dough is made from wheat flour.
The filling is a mixture of shredded leeks, stir-fried eggs, dried shrimp and dried and fried spring onions.
Cifan tuan 粢饭团
Shanghai locals used to serve this for breakfast. The glutinous rice ball is stuffed with youtiao (deep-fried dough strip), creating a contrast between the crispy filling and glutinous wrapping. It has sweet or savory fillings, the former with sweetened osmanthus and the latter with pork floss.