IN northern China, the Lunar New Year’s Eve is the time to gather as an extended family and together make and eat jiăozi, a dumpling usually stuffed with vegetables, and in more well-to-do families, maybe a bit of pork mince.
It’s a modest dish by “Western” (anywhere that is not China) family standards, or even by comparison to Cantonese cuisine, the kind of Chinese food we Filipinos are more accustomed to. Jiăozi is almost like the poor relation of siomai, which are filled with rich stuffing, delicately seasoned and wrapped, and steamed til the paper thin dough that encases it is just on the right side of translucent.
Jiăozi, on the other hand, makes use of thicker dough wrappers that become quite chewy at the edges, cooked as they are in big vats of water that are traditionally boiled over an open charcoal fire. There might be a bit of oil that oozes out of the miniscule amounts of meat in the farcie, thus softening the dough a tiny bit. But where the dumplings, folded so they resemble ingots to symbolize good fortune, are filled purely with vegetables, there is no oil for either added flavor nor improved texture.
The best siomai is lightly dipped into a golden soy sauce to enhance the flavor of the meat and shrimp. Jiăozi is bathed in bowls of strong black vinegar with even stronger shreds of fresh ginger. The first time your mouth encounters the texture and flavor combination, you might be in for a shock if you think it’s anything like the siomai you’ve grown used to and were expecting.
Which is not to say that jiăozi is no good, because it is. It holds its own among northern Chinese cuisine, which tends to be on the — shall we say — less flavorful side of Chinese food, to put it mildly. The boiled dumplings are best eaten fresh out of the starchy soup. The soup itself is served as a warm milky drink in plastic cups, either because the northerners believe that a slurry of flour and boiled water with occasional bits of chopped cabbage from where a jiăozi might have leaked is good for your health, or because they believe that nothing should go to waste. More likely to be the second reason, if we are to be honest.
A more special treat is to take the raw jiăozi, panfry the bottoms in a tiny amount of hot oil, and when they begin to brown and crisp, pour some water into the pan and steam the dumplings until all the water is absorbed. This method is less likely to produce a gummy dumpling, and is probably a concession to Western palates. In the US, this is what is known as potstickers. But because it is not the traditional way, many tiny restaurants in northern China will not even agree to cook it this way, even for the most finicky of foreign customers.
China is a country that prides itself in its traditions and it can be hard to penetrate a tightly-guarded family circle, even if one makes many friends while living there. And so if you wanted to witness a bit of Lunar New Year merrymaking, sometimes you may have to do as we did, which was to sign up for a tour with a culture center that took us and a busload of foreigners, called “lǎowài” (literally, old foreign) to a remote village 30 kilometers south of Beijing to experience the jiăozi-making and other old-style festivities firsthand.
As this was broad daylight and no longer the New Year’s Eve, it was a staged re-run that we, essentially, paid to join. As we descended the bus, cameras at the ready, fireworks were set off and stilt dancing began all around us. Soon the one-car-lane dirt roads were covered with red fireworks wrappers, the air cleared, and the dancers went off for cigarette breaks. The tour guide then pointed out that the procession was led by the town mayor, banging away on his old cymbals, and the dancers were often the elders of the village. Then, with a flourish, we were told that if we thought that was the main attraction, we would be wrong.
We were herded off into small groups, each group to go into one of the villagers’ homes, and try our hand at stuffing and folding jiăozi, and sharing the meal with them. The family “members” may or may not have been actually related, or may have been drawn from neighboring homes to complete the ideal three-generation set up. Their charcoal-heated bed was cleared so we could sit on it and makeshift tables were drawn for us to prepare the food and, later, eat from. We religiously took photos of every step of the process, while the young kids were more interested in taking pictures of us. It was a culinary class, local immersion and cultural lesson all in one.
There were lots of hand signaling, both hosts and visitors trying to make sense of how people were related to each other. There were vocabulary lessons for everyday items, more picture-taking, laughing over the frustration of knowing you wouldn’t be able to understand or make yourself understood, and yet it wouldn’t matter.
For that mealtime, there was more than enough jiăozi to go around, it could’ve fed several more families. And for that festival, no one was a foreigner, no one was unaccustomed to the biting winter in an unheated brick village house, and everyone was warmed from the heat of the coal, and from feeling like they were back home.