Boiled crescent dumplings (jiao zi) is the traditional New Year dish in northern China. Whole families gather to knead the dough, roll out the circular skins, and wrap the dumplings, which are often made in such huge quantities that they cover every plate, tray, and flat surface in the kitchen and dining room. The dumplings are devoured piping hot, with dips of soy sauce, vinegar, and perhaps a little sesame or chili oil. The favorite northern filling for the dumplings is a mixture of ground pork and Chinese cabbage, but there are countless variations. Chinese Muslims, for example, make their jiao zi with lamb instead of pork, while country people in some areas of Gansu province make unusually large jiao zi, each about 4 inches long.
The Sichuanese have, with their customary ingenuity, developed their own distinctively Sichuanese way of preparing and serving jiao zi. The dumplings are wrapped small and dainty, with a very plain ground pork filling, and are served with a heavenly sauce of chili oil, aromatic soy sauce, and garlic.
According to scholars, Chinese people have been eating this type of dumpling for at least fourteen hundred years. The style was popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) when it spread all over the region – apparently archaeologists found a wooden bowl filled with jiao zi in a Tang Dynasty tomb they excavated in remote Turpan! Zhong dumplings have a rather more recent history – legend has it that this Sichuanese version was invented by a peddler named Zhong Xiesen in 1893. He later opened a shop in LYchee Land (li zhi gai), the descendant of which is still trading in a side street not far from the Mao statue in central Chengdu.
If you want to be really traditional, you must serve each guest with about four tiny dumplings in a little bowl, with 1 or 2 teaspoons of dipping sauce. This has echoes of the origins of the dish as a street snack sold in tiny, inexpensive portions. But if you find these too much fuss, just make them as I’ve suggested below with larger dumpling skins (which you can make yourself or buy in Chinese supermarkets), and serve them in hearty bowlfuls with a generous slosh of the spicy sauce.
If you use store-bought dumpling wrappers, jiao zi are extremely quick and easy to prepare. Making your own wrappers take a little more time and trouble, but it’s great fun to enlist friends and family to help you make a collective dumpling lunch. If I’m having a dumpling party, I always find it worthwhile to buy more dumpling wrappers and fresh ground pork than I think I will possible need – any excess can be frozen and used another time. And if you have any wrapped dumplings left over, they can be frozen raw and then boiled straight from the freezer for a quick and delicious snack.
Do remember that if any of your gusts don’t like eating chiles, they can dip their dumplings into a northern-style mixture of soy sauce and black vinegar.
To make your own dumpling wrappers (this recipe makes enough dough to wrap the stuffing in the recipe below):
1. Put the flour and salt onto a pastry board, make a well in the center, and add enough cold water to make a stiff but pliable dough. Mix well, and knead for several minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic – the more thoroughly you knead, the better the dough. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and leave to rest for about 20 minutes.
2. Rolling out the dough: to make the traditional, tiny Sichuanese dumplings, roll the dough into long sausages about as thick as your thumb, and break off small pieces the size of cherries. Flatten these with the palm of your hand on a lightly floured surface, and roll with a rolling pin to form discs about 2 inches in diameter. Pile them up as you work, adding small sprinklings of flour as necessary to prevent them from sticking together. If you wish to save time and make the larger, northern-style dumplings, break off slightly larger pieces of dough and roll them into discs 2 ½ -3 inches in diameter. Remember that the tiny Sichuanese dumplings will take less time to cook through than the northern ones (you will probably need to add only one coffee-cupful of cold water before they are done).
For the filling:
1. Smash the ginger with the flat side of a cleaver blade or a heavy object and leave to soak for a few minutes in about 1 cup of cold water.
2. Mix the egg, wine, and salt and pepper into the pork, and then gradually add the ginger-water (discarding the crushed pieces), so it is absorbed by the meat to form a fragrant, floppy paste. Mix the dipping ingredients in a little bowl – always add the garlic at the last minute to make the most of its strong, fresh fragrance.
3. Place a dumpling skin flat on your hand and add a generous teaspoon of filling. Fold one side of the skin over the meat, make one or two tucks in it, and then press it tightly to meet the other side and make a little half-moon-shaped dumpling. You can seal the dumpling with a series of little pinches if you wish. Make sure you pinch the skins together tightly so the filling can’t ooze out. Lay the dumplings, separately, on a lightly floured tray, plate, or work surface.
4. Heat a generous pot of water to a vigorous boil over a high flame. Stir the water briskly, and place in a couple of handfuls of dumplings. Stir once to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. When the water has returned to a boil, throw in a coffee-cupful of cold water. Allow the water to return to a boil again, and add another coffee-cupful of cold water. When the water has returned to a boil for the third time, the dumpling skins will be glossy and puckered and the meat should have cooked through – cut one dumpling in half to make sure. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon, drain well, and serve steaming hot with the spicy, aromatic dip. (Take note: the cold water is added to prevent the water from boiling too vigorously and tearing the dumplings apart.) Continue cooking the dumplings in batches until your guests are incapable of eating any more.