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'Tis time for dumplings

http://www.chinese.cn 15:17, January 19, 2011 CE.CN

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While rice is a staple food for southerners, (defined as those living south of the Yangtze River), the northern Chinese prefer noodles and dumplings.

Jiaozi, or dumplings, take on many forms, their shapes shifting as they pass through the provinces in the northeast or north. But whatever their form, the traditions that go with them do not change.

Take feasting during the Spring Festival. On the eve of Lunar New Year, most families keep vigil way past midnight, with every light in the house blazing. This custom is especially important for extended families with elderly members since it is believed the vigil will ensure the old folks have many healthy, happy years ahead of them.

Making dumplings together is one way to keep oneself occupied during the long vigil.

After the reunion dinner, the head of the family will bring out the flour and start kneading dough, rolling out little wrappers which the womenfolk will quickly fill with succulent meat and vegetables. The dumplings will have to keep for the next few days, when the house will be full of visitors, leaving little time for the kitchen.

But it is not just during festive occasions that we eat jiaozi. It is a food for all occasions, merry or sad.

When my husband and I return to Beijing from our visits home, my sisters-in-law and aunt will start piling up the dumplings even before the luggage is unpacked.

The first meal - to welcome us home - will be jiaozi. And when it is time for us to leave, we'll have jiaozi again - to send us off on the road. And so it goes for birthdays, weddings, births and deaths. Jiaozi are eaten with joy in health and happiness, and for comfort during goodbyes.

The dough is almost always made from wheat flour, which most families buy by the bag. The filling varies with the seasons.

In summer, French beans, long beans, broad beans or fennel tops are minced with pork or lamb. In winter, cabbages, radishes and pumpkins are more common. In my family, our sisters also make a vegetarian version - using scrambled eggs, bean curd and garlic chives.

The main flavoring is Sichuan pepper - a spice which arrived with migrant workers - which has been adopted with great enthusiasm. A handful is steeped in hot oil and then the fragrant oil is used as the main aromatic.

Northerners like their dumplings boiled, and served with dips, such as chopped garlic in black vinegar. But, my favorite dip is the beautifully pungent, pickled flowering chives. It has a unique aroma that is almost impossible to describe.

There is no mystery to making jiaozi. The dough is easily done and all you need is enough elbow grease to make it smooth and pliable.

As for the filling, follow the basic steps and you are on your way to making up your own feast.

Boil them, steam them or fry up a batch and turn them into that instant party hit - potstickers.


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