What do Chinese eat, when they have something to celebrate: dumplings!
Dumplings are small round sheets of dough (flour + water) filled with minced meat + condiments + vegetables. After a piece of filling has been placed in the centre of the dough, the latter is folded into a shape that vaguely resembles a horn, in particular that of a cow. This shape is the origin of the Chinese name: jiaozi. Jiao is ‘horn’ in Chinese and jiaozi means something like ‘small horn.’ Later, the link between dumplings and horns eroded and as dumplings became an important part of Chinese cuisine (in particular in the Northern part of China), a special character was coined for this food.
Dumplings are an old food, as is shown by various archeological finds. According to an archaeologist from the Museum of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, the three dumplings unearthed in the region’s Turpan area were determined to have been made during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589). Archaeologists also found two complete dumplings made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Turpan. The dumplings were 5 cm long, 1.5 cm wide and resembled the new moon in shape. Further research revealed the dumpling wrappers were made from wheat flour and the stuffing was meat.
According to legend, during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 22 – 220), there lived a famous physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine, named Zhang Zhongjing, who introduced dumplings. Once, the “medical saint” was returning to his ancestral village after a long period of absence. During that winter, a febrile disease was turning into an epidemic. Many poor people were submitted to the cold weather because of the lack of warm clothes and sufficient food and suffered frostbite, mainly around their ears. Seeing their condition, Zhang was determined to help them rid of the frostbite. He cooked lamb, black peppers and a few medicinal herbs, shredded them and wrapped it in the scrape of dough skin. He shaped them like ears and boiled them. Everyone sick person was given two ‘ears’ along with a bowl of warm soup. After a few days, the frostbite was gone and the epidemic was under control. Since then, most people begin imitating Zhang’s recipe with additional ingredients like vegetables and other kinds of meat to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Already in traditional Chinese cuisine, some variation was applied in the preparation of dumplings. While pork was the main type of meat for the filling, beef and mutton were also used, combined with different vegetables. In Southern China seafood, especially shrimps, were used as filling as well. Vegetarian types of dumplings with, e.g., eggs, cucumber slices and glass noodles, etc. were known as Three Delicacies Dumplings.
Dumplings have developed into a Chinese type of fast food and special small restaurants only serving a wide variety of dumplings can be found on street corners of Beijing and other Northern cities.
Dumplings are THE Chinese festival food par excellence. Look at this video to learn more about the role of dumplings in the Chinese New Year celebration.
The dramatic change in life style of the past two decades has had a great impact on dumplings. While making dumplings (preparing the filling and the dough, folding the dumplings and, of course, eating them) used to be the number one family occupation during the weekends in the North, the quickening of the pace of life has decreased the interest in this time consuming preparation. It has not, however, tempered the love for dumplings of the Chinese. Towards the end of the 20th Century, a number of food manufacturers started experimenting with the industrial production of quick frozen dumplings (one of these, Sanquan, already ranks among China’s top food brands), to cash in on the increasing pace of life of Chinese consumers. the current production is approximately 15 mln mt p.a., with 100 – 150 kt exported.
The latest news (October 2014) is that China’s top fruit juice producer, Huiyuan, is considering to invest in the production of quick frozen dumplings. This is a clear sign that dumplings are perceived as a lucrative business.
Apart from the quick frozen mass production, there are also machines that produce dumplings for use in restaurants and other types catering business.
This video shows part of the production of quick frozen dumplings at Sanquan.
This development has created exciting new challenges for ingredients suppliers (see my blog on the Quick Frozen Tradition). First of all, do the manufacturers of frozen dumplings buy their own raw meat, vegetables, etc., or do they purchase minced meat and chopped vegetables. Especially for the meat, it seems more appropriate to have meat processing companies supply ready-to-use minced meat. Other ingredients used in the fillings include: flavours, taste enhancers, and dehydrated spices. The dough poses challenging opportunities for suppliers of enzymes. To mention one example: fungal α-amylase can lower the viscosity of the of the gelatinized starch, generating dextrin and a small quantity of glucose and maltose, which will make the dumplings softer and not stick to the teeth.
Here is a recipe for quick frozen dumpling skin that I picked up from a food technology site.
|High gluten flour
|Modified potato starch
The booming industrial production of dumplings and the resulting increased consumption has also triggered developments in related industries. A typical example is the appearance of ‘dumpling vinegar’. Dumplings are traditionally dipped in rice vinegar before consumption. China’s top vinegar brand Hengshun is now also available in a convenient table top packing. The label clearly indicates the motivation for this variety.
Haibawang in Shantou (Guangdong) has launched innovative dumplings in September 2014 are ‘fish skin dumplings’. The wrapping of these dumplings contains 40% fish meat (probably in the form of fish paste). This makes them highly transparent. Highbawang has clearly stated that it intends to challenge the top producers of frozen dumplings like Sanquan with this novel product.
A month later, in October 2014, Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a new range of dumplings with well known Chinese dishes like Sichuan Pepper Beef or Lime Beef fillings. Until this launch, the fillings of dumplings, whether home made or produced commercially, consisted of minced meat and a type of vegetable as the main ingredients, with spices and seasoning as added to finish the flavor. Stuffing a complete dish in a dumpling is revolutionary.
The mackerel dumplings of Hongye Food (Shandong) received the status of ‘traditional Chinese delicacy’ in February, 2020.
CP (Zhengda) has launched a range of ready to eat dumplings early 2022, marketed as breakfast dumplings. The are packed in small one-person helpings, also gearing to the growing market for single households.
Dumplings for children
Children are a major market segment for the Chinese food and beverage industry. Although a second child is a possibility now, for parents who are themselves single children, most children in China are still the ‘little emperors’ of the household who are doted on by parents and grandparents. Producers of quick frozen dumplings have also developed dumplings for children. They are marketed as more nutritious than the regular product and the skins are often coloured (typically red or green) to appeal more to the young. Sanquan‘s ‘King Shrimp Dumplings’ ended first in a taste panel test organized before Children’s Day (June 1), 2017.
Although minced meat is the typical main ingredient of the fillings of dumplings, vegetarian dumplings exist as well. For home cooking, they do not pose a particular problem. However, the transformation to industrial production of vegetarian dumplings has its particular problems, the most prominent being the dehydration of the filling. Jiajiamei Seasoning (Zhoukou, Henan) has developed a seasoning mix specially formulated for vegetarian dumplings to deal with that problem.
Another way of distinguishing yourself in the growing mass of industrial dumpling makers is going for high quality, getting rid of unnecessary additives, perhaps going for organic in the near future. Such a company is Chuange (Qingdao, Shandong). Founded in 2009, it produces a range of hand-made seafood dumplings. It markets its products as an industrial reproduction of traditional seafood dumplings eaten by the local fishermen. Its product range even includes sepia dumplings, marked by its distinct colour, not unlike the sepia noodles from Italy, or sepia paella from Spain.
Dumplings are such a popular food, that it has lead to the development of various products related to the making or eating dumplings. E.g., many producers of vinegar or soy sauce have developed special products for dipping dumplings. Some chefs have started making dumplings using other cereals, like the oat dumplings of the restaurant chain Xibei Youmian.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.