(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)
It's our one-year anniversary today (that's right, 7/7/07), and aside from the nice seafood dinner planned for tonight, I'd like to celebrate with a paean to the humble dumpling, Dongbei staple and midnight savior of hungry college students everywhere.
Also known as the "dumpling" to normal, non-Homestar-Runner-obsessed folks, the dumple can be found in nearly every corner of China, with some important regional variations. In the US, you're most likely to find "potstickers," which are the northern jiaozi, though outside northern China (i.e., in the rest of China, or in Korea, Japan, or the US) they're more often served pan-fried (guotie), whereas from Beijing north they're almost always boiled or steamed.
Thick-skinned boiled dumplings are very popular in northern Chinese cooking for a number of reasons. First, the wheat used to make the dumplings is actually more plentiful in the region than rice, which makes a thick dumpling a good way to stretch more-expensive "goodies" like pork, beef, and vegetables. Second, boiled dumplings also conserve oil, which historically doubled as a winter heating fuel in the coldest parts of northern China. Third, the standard pork-and-chive dumpling is an excellent match for the mild pickled veggies, tofu, and soy vinegar that dominate most northern meals. And finally, dumplings can be wrapped long before cooking and then served up in a flash, making them very easy to fit into a busy lifestyle--and into a busy retail setting.
As a result, dumplings have assumed the same position in northern Chinese cuisine that pizza has in most of North America: Chinese people, especially families and students, turn to dumplings for a quick, cheap, and satisfying meal--and in this case, at least passably healthy, too.
In other parts of the country, though, dumplings take on a slightly more sophisticated veneer, influenced by the dim sum tradition of southern China. In Xian, we ate at a dinner theater (skipped the show--looked pretty tourist-trappy) whose set menu consisted entirely of dumplings, dim-sum-style, some of whose ingredients and presentations were rather creative. For example, one dish included cabbage dumplings that looked like bok choi and pork dumplings that looked like pig's snouts (below, top and middle), while another included fish dumplings that looked like stylized koi (below, bottom).The big hit of the night, however, was a baked-then-fried ground beef dumpling with Xinjiang-style spices (no photo--it didn't last that long) that was a dead-ringer for any number of Middle Eastern meat pies. Yum!
Next up: Some colorful examples of Dongbei/Beijing cuisine, including the famous Peking Duck.