For most Chinese families, jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings, are as essential to the Chinese New Year as roast turkeys are to Americans on Thanksgiving. In the modern era, most Chinese families prepare platters of jiaozi as part of their celebrations, but the tradition can likely be traced back to the imperial court of the Ming Dynasty.
“People get up early on new year’s day […] drink herbal liqueur, and eat dumplings,” wrote a once-powerful eunuch in his memoir. “A coin was sometimes hidden in a dumpling as a lucky token.”
These days, dumplings are often a late-night food on Chinese New Year’s Eve. When the new year’s countdown approaches, one member of the party pops into the kitchen, and comes back with a plate of steaming dumplings for everyone to share.
To simply describe dumplings as a Chinese New Year specialty that symbolizes fortune and prosperity is to underplay the snack’s popularity. Dumplings are actually eaten throughout the year across the country. Ubiquitous as they are, these crescent shaped pouches are by no means quick to make.
In my family, dumpling making, or “dumpling wrapping” as it’s called in Chinese, has always been a joyous weekend project. My mom sometimes forgoes store-bought wrappers and kneads the dough by hand herself. My dad, the better cook, prepares the filling. He cuts vegetables into fine strands, folds them into the ground meat, adds a generous amount of ginger and scallion, and stirs the mixture vigorously. According to Chinese tradition, you should always stir in one direction, so that the meaty filling has a pleasing texture. As a kid, I was only allowed to participate in wrapping the dumplings, which is a less messy process. I was told to scoop the right amount of meat filling into a wrapper, and pinch the edge to seal. My parents themselves, however, have never mastered the craft of shaping the pouch into symmetric crescents and seal them with neat, scalloped pleats. But both seemed to have fun making those irregular-shaped dumplings, which somehow managed to never fall apart in the boiling pot.
Maybe because of the joviality of the long cooking process, dumplings are often associated with family. It is not uncommon for retired parents to make a big batch of dumplings and store them in the freezer for when their grown-up children visit from a far away city. Colleges and companies like to organize dumpling wrapping events for freshman students or new hires, as a team bonding activity. I myself have participated in a few similar events when I was in college, and these days I still reminisce to my best friend how when we first met, I watched in amazement as she pleated the seams of the dumpling wrappers into extremely intricate patterns, something no one in my family has ever been able to do.
Though their preparation can be time consuming, that doesn’t mean dumplings are an artisanal food, fancified and fetishized as homemade pasta. When the Chinese government rolled out a series of economic reforms in the 1990s that encouraged private enterprises, it didn’t take long before factories began to churn out this homespun dish on assembly lines. Packaged frozen dumplings appeared in supermarkets. Today they are the Chinese food equivalent of boxed mac and cheese. Huge dumpling chain restaurants expanded nationwide, attracting large crowds with standardized recipes and affordable prices.
Despite these changes in the accessibility of pre-made dumplings, small dumpling restaurants still managed to survive. My mom often took me to a small eatery after weekend cram school (a special institution designed to prepare students for high school and college entry exams). Tucked inside an old residential neighborhood encircled by luxury malls and office buildings, the eatery was nothing more than a dilapidated shack built of corrugated tin wall. The dumplings, nevertheless, were excellent. Four flavors were available, celery, chive, cabbage, and “shepherd’s purse,” a wild vegetable. For ten yuan ($1.2), my mom and I would share two servings and be happily satisfied.
It’s easy to find Chinese dumplings in America, even in non-Chinese businesses. They are sold at Trader Joe’s, and are popular appetizers in Japanese or Korean restaurants. For us millennial expats used to working through the festival season, dumplings have become an inseparable link to the festivities on the other side of the earth. A friend of mine, who works at an accounting firm in New York, recently told me that Chinese New Year for her means “cooking supermarket bought frozen dumplings.” The celebration usually falls on an especially busy time at work, but a plate of dumplings is enough to make my friend less guilty for skipping most of the festivities.
Maybe this is exactly why people eat dumplings during Chinese New Year. It’s nourishing, delicious, and unpretentious. Just like home. Nothing to fuss about, but always there when you need it.