Though I am not a professional mind-reader, there is one thing that I can confidently say. One of the best dishes ever to be created by an Asian is dumplings. Whoever has eaten it will know what I mean. Dumpling is a very diverse category and it includes various kinds of dumplings depending on the region, shape and size, fillings, method of preparation and so on.
What exactly is Jiaozi?
Jiǎozi (饺子) is one of the many Chinese dumplings. It consists of minced meat or veggies wrapped into a round and fairly-thick wrapper made of dough and sealed by pressing the edges together. Apparently, machine-made thin wrappers have started replacing hand-made thick wrappers in recent times. It can be boiled, steamed, or pan-fried. Exclusively in Asia, we have Dim sum (Cantonese dumplings), Mandu (Korean dumplings), Gyōza (Japanese dumplings), and Momo (Tibetan dumplings). To me, all of them are cousins. Then what makes Jiaozi worth talking about?
Jiaozi has its roots dug deep into the Chinese culture. It is one of the most frequently eaten dishes in China, especially in the northern provinces. In fact, people don’t eat Jiaozi to get energy to work or because it’s delicious; they eat it for prosperity, happiness, to celebrate and most importantly for a good fortune. From its inception until it became an auspicious cuisine, Jiaozi can be better understood by embarking on its journey.
But before doing that, it’s vital to get familiar with the Asian cousins of Jiaozi to develop a better understanding of similarities and differences among them.
The cousins of Jiaozi
Though both of them are Chinese, they differ a lot. Dim sum is bite-sized with thin translucent skin and is usually steamed. On the contrary, Jiaozi is larger, thicker and can be boiled or fried as well. As per Cantonese traditions, Dim sum is served in small steam baskets with a cup of tea. It is commonly found in south-eastern China, while Jiaozi can be commonly found in northern China.
Jiaozi-like dumplings are known as Gyoza in Japan. One of the differences is the rich garlic flavour in Gyoza that is absent in Jiaozi. Secondly, Gyoza wrappers are consistently thinner as they use machine-made wrappers in Japan. On the other hand, Chinese people have traditionally used hand-made thicker wrappers. As mentioned earlier though, the machine-made thin wrappers are becoming common with time.
Mandu and Jiaozi have a similar cooking process. In Spite of similarities, it can be seen that Korean people add Kimchi (a Korean dish) while preparing the stuffing of one of the different kinds of Mandu whereas there is no Kimchi-like stuffing in Jiaozi.
The Tibetan version is known as Momo. While Jiaozi is usually served with a black vinegar and sesame oil dip, Momo tastes best with tomato, Sichuan pepper and red chilli sauce.
The warrior who saved many lives…
Jiaozi is regarded as the winter food in China. The first serving of Jiaozi was prepared nearly 1800 years ago. It was extreme winters and there was an epidemic going on. Many poor people who were not able to save themselves from the cold weather began suffering from frostbite in their ears.
It was then, when a man named Zhang Zhongjing, who was determined to fight the disease, decided to take action. He took mixed mutton meat, chilli pepper and herbs together and then shredded them as fillings. He used dough and wrapped the fillings in it, resulting in creation of ear-shaped food. After boiling them, he gave 2 ear-shaped pieces and a bowl of soup to each patient.
After a few weeks, this treatment gave positive results implying that the frostbite was getting cured. This is how the epidemic came under control. Zhang’s recipe gained popularity and new varieties were being created. This is how dumplings were born.
The secret behind the name ‘Jiaozi’
It will be quite relevant after looking at the picture that the shape of Jiaozi and a horn is identical. In fact, this shape is the reason how Jiaozi got its name. The Chinese for ‘horn’ is Jiǎo (角). Originally, Jiaozi was written with the Chinese character for ‘horn’.
It’s quite simple, right? Presently, Jiaozi is represented using (饺子). In this character, the food radical (子) is on the left and the phonetic component jiāo (饺) on the right.
Jiaozi and the Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, falls between Jan. 21st and Feb. 20th on the Gregorian calendar and is celebrated for 15 days. The celebrations begin on the new year’s eve when families sit together and enjoy a feast. The dates of many other festivals including Chinese New year, Lantern Festival, and Dragon Boat Festival are based on the Chinese Lunar calendar.
Just like every traditional cuisine is usually associated with a cultural festival or activity, similarly, Jiaozi is associated with the Chinese New year. Though the northern-China provinces eat Jiaozi during the whole year, people in other parts of the country eat it on the new year’s eve and during the celebrations.
One of the reasons is Zhang’s story. It is believed that the epidemic was controlled and ended somewhere around the new year. Jiaozi is eaten at midnight and celebrated as a warrior who came to their rescue and brought happiness in their lives again.
Apart from being looked upon as a warrior who has rescued them in the past, people expect that when the time comes, it will save their lives again. Eating Jiaozi shows how people of different generations rest their faith in it. They eat it on new year’s eve to pray for joy, happiness and prosperity for their whole family in the next year.
Jiaozi and the Gold Ingot
Contextually, gold (or silver) Ingot is a type of ancient currency and Sycee or Yuanbao is a type of Ingot that was used as a currency in Imperial China. Apparently, the shape of the Yuanbao Ingots used during the Ming Dynasty is similar to the shape of Jiaozi. As Ingot was a type of money, serving Jiaozi is believed to bring prosperity.
This belief has also led to a tradition that is very popular in China. During New year’s eve, families get together and make Jiaozi. While making Jiaozi, they hide a coin in only a single piece in the whole lot. While eating, the person who finds the coin is likely to have good fortune in the next year.
Jiaozi as way of expression
It has become a symbol of home and warmth. It is associated with good fortune. In northern provinces, it is very interesting to see their belief in the power of Jiaozi. They eat it at the beginning of every season – summer, autumn, winter, and chinese new year (or spring). Why? Firstly, to reward themselves for part successes, and secondly, to bring good fortune in the coming days. Along with this, it is also associated with wealth and prosperity; thanks to Gold Ingots.
Jiaozi is certainly not just a dish to be eaten, but is deeply-rooted to the Chinese culture. After being passed down for a thousand years, eating Jiaozi has become an important part of not only Chinese culture, but Chinese customs and traditions as well.