Happy Chinese New Year!
by Mark R. Vogel

            Chinese New Year is one of the most important holidays in Chinese culture.  It begins on the day of the first new moon of the year and ends on the full moon 15 days later.  The last day is known as the Lantern Festival and is highlighted by lantern displays at night and in parades.  In Chinese astrology, each year is represented by one of twelve animals with the entire cache of characters repeating every twelve years.  This year, which begins on February 7th 2008, will be the year of the rat.  Individuals born during a certain animal’s year are alleged to possess certain personality traits.  “Rats” for example, are intelligent, charismatic, and sociable but can also be manipulative, exploitive and greedy. 

            The Chinese New Year celebration is a time to unite with family and friends and hope for the prosperity and good fortune that the new year may bring.  There are a host of rituals, customs, superstitions, decorations, etc., that ring in the new year.  For example, the use of fireworks and the ubiquitous red decorations originate from a story in ancient Chinese mythology.  The “Nian” was a man-eating beast from the mountains that emerged every year in winter to prey on humans.  According to the legend, he was driven off by loud noises and the color red.

            Like many cultures the world over, the Chinese have traditional foods that are eaten for the New year celebration.  These can vary somewhat with the region of China in question but include certain vegetable dishes, whole fish, (to represent togetherness and abundance), whole chicken, with the head and tail left on, (to represent completeness),  mandarin oranges, uncut noodles, (to represent a long life) and various sweets (to represent a sweet year).  And thank God, or should I say Buddha, NO tofu.  Tofu is white, a color associated with death or misfortune.  I know I’d rather die than eat it. 

            But one of the most popular and traditional foods is the Chinese dumpling or Jiaozi.  Dumplings, which can be quite diverse, are found in the cuisines of most regions.  They are made from either balls of dough, such as matzo balls, gnocchi, or the dumplings of the American south, or thin sheets of dough that are folded around a filling such as pierogis or ravioli.  Dumplings can be sweet or savory.  They can also be cooked in a plethora of ways, (steamed, boiled, pan-fried, deep-fried), depending on the recipe.

            While there are many variations, Chinese dumplings are usually made from some combination of ground meat, seafood, and vegetables.  The dough is folded over and they are sealed by moistening the edges with water, (although egg wash could also be used), and then crimping the edge.  Jiaozi are differentiated from wontons in that wontons are made from thinner dough, are generally more spherical, and are typically served in broth, a.k.a., wonton soup.  Jiaozi are customarily served with a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, and other ingredients. 

            If you're adventurous you can certainly make the dough for the dumplings from scratch.  It's a simple mixture of flour, a pinch of salt and water.  The dough is assembled, rested, rolled to the proper thickness, and then cut into the individual wrappers.  Most folks however prefer to buy the prefabricated wrappers and then just deal with the filling.  Most general supermarkets and indubitably the Asian ones, will have the wrappers in their refrigerated section. 

            My wife's family is from Beijing.  My mother-in-law makes the best dumplings I've ever had.  Below is her recipe for traditional Chinese dumplings and my recipe for the dipping sauce.

 CHINESE DUMPLINGS
(Makes 80-100 dumplings)

1 lb. ground pork
¼ lb. finely chopped shrimp
4-5 eggs, scrambled in vegetable oil and then finely chopped
½ lb. Chinese chives, finely chopped, (or substitute scallions)
5 leaves Napa cabbage, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
Soy sauce to taste
Salt to taste
A splash each of sesame oil and vegetable oil

              In a large bowl stir the ground pork with a small splash of water.  Do this two more times to produce a moist and somewhat sticky mixture.  Add all of the remaining ingredients and mix well.  On a cutting board place a dumpling wrapper and dollop about a teaspoon or so of the mixture onto the center.  Do not overfill or it will be difficult to adequately seal them, and/or they can burst open during cooking.  Wet the edge of the wrapper with some water, fold it over, and then crimp the edge to seal it.  Arrange the dumplings on a parchment lined sheet tray.  You can freeze them at this point for later use.  To cook, bring a pot of water or broth to a boil, add the dumplings, and cook until they float.  They are completely done when you can poke their center and the dough springs back.  You can serve them in broth like wontons but traditionally they are dipped in a sauce.

 DUMPLING DIPPING SAUCE

 3 oz. soy sauce
1 oz. dark soy sauce
1 oz. rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon hot chile oil
A splash of sesame oil
Finely minced chives or scallions

            You can adjust any or all of these ingredients to suit your taste.  Simply whisk the ingredients together, dip the dumplings in the sauce and enjoy.  Happy New Year!

 

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