Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, this year falls at the end of January. On Friday the 31st, we will be ushering in the Year of the Horse. People all over China will be jostling to travel back to their hometowns for the most elaborate annual culinary and festive extravaganza. Jiao Zi are one of the major new year foods of the North. In the West, they are simply translated as dumplings, but are a world away from the egg sized, suety doughballs consumed in stews and casseroles by the staunchly traditional British. Jiao Zi are the chewy bite size parcels of meat and vegetables wrapped in thin dough skins, pinched together, looking like miniature Cornish pasties, or ravioli.
As a child, I lived in the southernmost region of China, but with a mother from Chang Chun, and a father who spent his childhood in Beijing, we always had a mixture of southern and northern cooking during festive occasions.
Making Jiao Zi at home was a fond memory. Of my mother, the super fast champion dumpling skin roller, and my father, who made excellent Guo Tie (literally “sticking to pan”, the fried variety of Jiao Zi). Taciturn and serious as many Chinese fathers are, this was one of the rare occasions when my father melted a little, fondly telling stories of his grandmother who taught him to make Jiao Zi, and the dumpling stealing tradition of some northern villages.
In more remote northern Chinese villages, Spring Festival was a “whole hog” affair. Pigs were slaughtered and cooked by villagers, who would then use the entire animal to make enough Jiao Zi to last them for the entire month. For many, this was the only time in the year they got to eat meat. The uncooked Jiao Zi would be left outside in baskets or sacks, the extreme cold weather acting as natural refrigeration. It was also customary, on new year’s eve, for bachelors to steal a share of Jiao Zi, from a neighboring family. Where they themselves could not produce a pig to be slaughtered, and the household had too many to possibly consume before they went bad. At other times, stealing food like this would be burglary, but on new year’s eve, it was expected, if not even welcomed. Call it the Spring Festival spirit, if you like, but I wouldn’t try this with your local Chinese restaurant.
In large cities, of course, you don’t have to keep a pig to make Jiao Zi. Chinese supermarkets sell them pre-made and frozen to boil or fry at home, but it’s even better to try and make your own.
Here’s a simple recipe, passed to me by my father.
Last Spring festival, I invited some of my western friends to join in with the festivities, and they loved making the Jiao Zi, though they couldn’t resist pulling the stretchy dough around and throwing it at each other, so tell your friends to wear suitable clothing.
RECIPE FOR JIAO ZI
2 bags of plain flour
4 or 5 spring onions (finely chopped)
Fresh ginger (1 or 2 thin slices, finely chopped)
500g Pork mince
3 whole Pak Choi
6 prawns (finely chopped)
6 shiitake mushrooms (finely chopped)
Making the dough
1 Pour enough flour to half fill a small mixing bowl.
2 Slowly stir in small amounts of water, until the mixture holds together without being sticky.
3 Place the dough on a flat surface lightly dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Knead the dough firmly, turning it 90 degrees every so often.
4 Place the dough back into the bowl, covering it with a cool wet cloth and leaving it to rest is a cool place for 20-30 minutes.
Mixing the stuffing
1 Chop the Pak Choi very finely, and mix together with 3 tablespoons of salt.
2 After 10 minures, press the liquid out of the mix, using a clean tea towel to squeeze as much as you can from handfulls of chopped vegetable.
3 Place the pork mince in a separate, larger mixing bowl.
4 Add a small amount of oil and soy sauce to taste. Add the spring onions, ginger, prawn and mushrooms.
5 Mix until the seasonings are consistently distributed.
6 Mix the drained Pak Choi into the the mince mixture, adding a little more cooking oil, soy sauce and a small amount of sesame oil.
7 If the mixture is not fine at this stage, you can always cheat and put the filling into a blender. You are not looking to puree the ingredients, but they should be able to be squeezed into a nice tight shape.
Making Jiao Zi skins
1 Dust your worktop with flour to prevent the dough from sticking to it.
2 Tear off a good size piece of the dough and roll it into a long thin tube shape, about the width of a broom handle. Starting from one end, tear off small pieces, about the length of your thumb. Make them as evenly sized as possible. Repeat the process until all the dough has been divided up.
3 Roll the small pieces individually into balls, then flatten them. First with your hands, and then a rolling pin, keeping it as round as possible, till you have them about 10-11cm in diameter.
4 Using chopsticks or a teaspoon, deposit a small dollop of the mixture into the centre of the dough. Bring the two halves together, and pinch along the open edge to seal the wrapping. If the dough is misbehaving and not sticking, run a little water along the edge before crimping.
5 Repeat until you have used up all the dough and all the filling. This amount of mixture should net you about 100 Jiao Zi.
PRO TIP. If you are making this for a big group of guests, try hiding a pistachio nut in a few of the Jiao Zi. People finding them are supposed to get good luck in the following year. If you are worried about guests gobbling through them to find a lucky nut? Try lacing one or two with chili peppers!
Cooking the Jiao Zi
1 Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2 Add as many Jiao Zi as you can comfortably fit, giving them a very gentle stir so they don’t stick together.
3 Watch them as the water comes back to the boil, stirring occasionally to prevent them sticking.
4 When they begin to float to the surface, and the water begins to boil, add a cup of cold water.
5 Repeat this step a further 2 times. When the water boils for the third time, drain and remove.
6 Pour half the water away, before cooking your next batch.
Serve with black vinegar, chilli sauce or garlic vinegar to taste!
Posted in Culture and tagged china, Chinese, cooking, culture, dumpling, food, jiao zi, recipe