Dumplings: little parcels of luck for Chinese New Year
This month, the 23rd will be marking the arrival of Chinese New Year, not long after the gluttonous excesses of Christmas. But why stop the feast?
I, for one, will be putting any detox plans on hold. After all, the Spring Festival (as it is commonly known in China) is all about great food to ring in the new year. Auspicious dishes such as whole steamed fish are stalwarts in my family of Cantonese eaters, but we also adore the northern Chinese tradition of eating dumplings (called jiaozi in Mandarin) to ensure a plentiful and prosperous year ahead. In a time of austerity, I can’t think of anything better – or more economical – to eat and make than dumplings; not only do most recipes manage to feed the five thousand, their traditional shape akin to gold ingots is said to bring great fortune to the eater.
The classic jiaozi recipe consists of a simple plain flour and hot water dough, rolled out and usually filled with a deliciously juicy minced pork and Chinese cabbage filling flavoured with soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and Shaoxing wine, though prawns, chicken, beef or vegetarian versions (think firm tofu, shiitake mushrooms, glass noodles and water chestnuts) are all delicious variations.
If you’re a novice at making jiaozi, the wrapping bit can be the most daunting. However, cook and food writer Andrea Nguyen, behind the book Asian Dumplings says forget about fancy pleats: ‘Just get the dumpling wrapper closed! Worry about making your dumplings pretty with practice.’ (See Andrea's great step-by-step on Chowhound.) I find a good pinch around the edges, forcing out any air trapped between the skins (think back to ravioli-making 101) is good enough.
Making your own dumplings is easier than you think.
Traditionally, the dumplings are boiled (which are then called shui jiao – water dumplings) and served with a sharp dipping sauce of soy sauce, rice vinegar and chilli oil – not only dead simple, but incredibly moreish. But personally, I adore Ken Hom’s method of pan-frying, then steaming the parcels for the textural contrast of crisp, golden bottoms and tender dumpling skin on top.
Of course, the world of dumplings is a wonderfully diverse one – each little delightful morsel offering different fillings, textures, aromas and meanings. As well as jiaozi, you may find golden balls of deep-fried and sesame encrusted jian dui at dim sum restaurants, a chewy dumpling of glutinous rice flour with a sweet centre of lotus seed or red bean paste, also a symbol of wealth and prosperity. And, on the final evening of a the 15-day Spring Festival celebrations, families come together to feast on soft and sticky tang yuan – small globes of glutinous rice flour dumplings that are often filled with molten ground black sesame and sugar paste, red bean paste or ground peanuts, then served in a hot ginger syrup.
As they say, the best things do come in small packages.