Yang's jiaozi
By Eason Lai from 上海 (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 Image source: (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I love jiaozi. It’s what I want to eat when I go home to Los Angeles. It’s the first stop if I’m traveling  in Asia, whether that’s Kyoto (where they’re called gyoza), Taipei or Shanghai. For me, jiaozi is comfort food. But at least one website breathlessly declares jiaozi to be:

at the heart and soul of Chinese culture.  No other food, with the exception of rice and noodles, has a more prominent place in the everyday lives of Chinese: they are a snack, a staple, a holiday treat, and an almost sacred ritual around the Lunar New Year.  During this time, making jiaozi is a social ritual as well, with family and friends gathering round the bowls of fillings and dough, rolling skins, stuffing the jiaozi and talking, until hundreds of the little morsels are ready for boiling.

Talking, cooking, eating: that sounds like home to me. But what exactly is jiaozi?

dumpling dilemma

This is not a facetious question. Many of the Chinese terms rolling in my head mean the same thing, only in a different dialect. So when I think of jiaozi, I mean guotie and xiaolongbao, too. These are northern foods, the kind my father likes, as opposed to the dim sum of my Cantonese mother.

Thank goodness then for The Cleaver Quarterly with its hilarious infographic “How do you want your dumplings?” You can find it in print issue no. 3, a mouth-watering journey down the many paths in dumpling land. Boiled, deep fried, steamed or pan-fried? Meat or sweet? And, how would you like that wrapped, if at all? For an equally hunger-inducing journey, you can check out the pictorial version of this decision tree at The Cleaver Quarterly website.

Now I know that guotie (锅贴) and potsticker are one and the same term for a pan-fried dumping. Xiaolongbao (小笼包) , on the other hand, are steamed dumplings sealed with a pork filling and soup inside. But where is my jiaozi?

Jian jiaozi
My potstickers. Photo credit: Karen Kao

It turns out that jiaozi is a generic term for  dumpling. It won’t do you any good in a restaurant or with a street food vendor. You need to specify shuijiao (水饺 )(literally water dumpling), jianjiao (煎饺) (my fried favorite) or zhengjiao (蒸饺) (steamed like xiaolongbao but without the soup), to name only a few of the many varieties.

eating money

It’s unclear when or where jiaozi were invented. One legend claims the dumplings were created in China circa 225 AD

either to feed a starving impoverished Chinese village or to replace disembodied heads.

As with most Chinese words, jiaozi has many meanings in addition to the lowly dumpling. During the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), merchants in Chengdu began to use one of the earliest known forms of paper money which they called jiaozi. The city government, in turn, established an Office of Jiaozi, a sort of savings and loan avant la lettre. In time, the word became a synonym for money.

It can also be used to refer to midnight or

the end and beginning of time.

Literally, it means to go to sleep and have sons. In traditional Chinese culture, sons were a form of financial security for their parents.

In The Anthropology of Money in Southern California, all these various meanings combine to signify wealth, good luck and prosperity. It’s why Chinese families eat jiaozi on New Year’s Eve.

homemade jiaozi

We didn’t have that tradition in my home. I suppose there were limits to my father’s northern ways. I don’t remember ever going into Chinatown to watch the lion dance or light firecrackers at home. The only custom I can recall was the ban on using knives and scissors on New Year’s Day, lest you inadvertently cut off a relationship.

We made won ton at home. We stirred the meat filling with a fistful of chopsticks turned in one direction only. We sat around the table to fill and fold every wrappers until we had sheets and sheets of won ton. Most ended up in the freezer but there were always some kept behind for an immediate reward for our work.

Jiaozi in the making. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Last weekend, I made my first batch of jiaozi. The wrappers came out well but the filling needed pepping up. My mother used to put all sorts of stuff into her won ton filling: shrimp, shiitake, water chestnuts and chives. I’ll try that the next time I make my pan fried dumplings. And I won’t be so stingy filling my wrappers. I want prosperity to rain down on all who sit at my table every day of the year.