It’s a fact that many Chinese like to eat dumplings. Chinese people eat dumplings during the Lunar New Year. They eat dumplings for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And countless others around the world regardless of background like eating dumplings too.
Growing up, when my Chinese-Malaysian family went to out to yum cha, that was when I got to eat Chinese dumplings. These days, whenever I catch up with my Asian and non-Asian friends here in Melbourne, Chinese dumplings are usually on the menu.
Defining ‘dumpling’ can be tricky. All over the world, there are dumplings of all shapes, sizes and fillings. Dumplings can be loosely thought of as ‘small pieces of dough…often wrapped around a filling’, either sweet or savoury, steamed, fried or boiled. They are often thought of as an easy, simple meal. But different dumplings have different origins, and each of us has our own reasons for eating dumplings.
For many Chinese, eating Chinese dumplings is a kind of superstition, a celebratory occasion where we feel hope, peace and a sense of completeness. In China, jiǎo zi (饺子) are eaten during the Spring Festival to usher in the Lunar New Year, marking new beginnings. These dumplings are each shaped like a (crescent) moon with rugged patterns across their skins and edges; in Chinese culture the moon is symbolic of promising abundance and brightness. Eat dumplings, eat harmony and prosperity.
Growing up in Malaysia, during Chinese New Year festivities in Malaysia, me and the extended Cantonese-speaking family always had yum cha breakfasts and lunches. We’d order dumplings like gao choi gao/jiǔ cài jiǎo (韭菜饺, shrimp-chives), har gao/xiā jiǎ (虾饺,shrimp), siu mai/shāo mài (烧卖, shrimp-pork with yellow skins) and chiu chou fun guo/cháo zhōu fěn guǒ (潮州粉果, pork-shrimp) – must-orders. We ate them for so long and they made our family yum chas back then assuredly complete.
To many typical traditional Chinese, eating dumplings is eating a meal worth in gold, literally. Dumplings like the jiǎo zi and yellow-skinned siu mai personify good financial fortune, metaphorically reminiscent of gold and silver ingots that were used as currency in ancient China. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279AD), jiǎo zi was a form of paper currency. Also, breaking down the name jiǎo zi: jiǎo translates to “crossing” and zi the time between 11pm and 1am. Eat dumplings, eat your way to riches and an affluent new beginning. While today the paper currency is no longer used, ingots are still commonly used as ancestral offerings, continuing revered tradition in Chinese culture.
For many Chinese, part of the fun that comes with eating dumplings is making and plating them up together. Togetherness and the notion of family are virtues in Asian cultures. It takes time to knead dumpling dough, mince filling and wrap flattened dough around measured quantities of filling – all made by hand amidst gossiping with each other to pass the time making a meal of dumplings.
My Chinese-Malaysian family in Malaysia were never up for making dumplings from scratch, though. When dumplings were on the menu for extended-family dinners at home, one of us would go down to the slippery wet market, precariously queue up and buy pork mince and ready-made wonton (wàhn tān/yún tūn, 云吞) wrappers there. Back at home, my grandma and aunt would spend hours assembling the wontons together and then simmering them in pork-bone broth for dinner, for everyone at the dinner table.
And consequently eating Chinese dumplings is often a meal where you share. In Chinese culture, teamwork punches above individuality; sharing is dignified, just like how many Chinese share tiny apartments with family and naturally spoon food onto each other’s plates. Sure, you can order a whole plate of dumplings and have it all to yourself. But there are only so many dumplings you can eat, and Chinese dumplings are almost always made to share, coming in an even number 6, 8, 12 or more pieces per plate.
There’s the misconception that all dumplings are distinctively Chinese. They aren’t. There are African dumplings. Indian dumplings. Japanese dumplings. South American dumplings. And more. From souskluitjies to samosas to gyozas to empandas, there are countless versions of the dumpling. Some dumplings originated during the Eastern Han Dynasty in ancient China to keep locals warm in winter, some from a Roman cookery text and the word ‘dumpling’ itself is rumoured to date back to the 1600s in the Norfolk area in the UK. But mention dumplings, a lot of the time many Australians will think of dumplings as part of Chinese or Asian cuisine – in the city of Melbourne, countless restaurants serving dumplings brand themselves as Chinese.
Perhaps Chinese dumplings are more popular because they tend to come across as palatable. A kind of food so different, yet so similar to some of us. As philosophy blogger Randall Collis said here, Chinese dumplings are similar to Western pasta such as ravioli, and so perhaps appear approachable to non-Chinese who eat pasta. Also, many Chinese dumplings don’t look much like adventurous food – they tend to be small, dainty, pieces of almost-finger-like food that can be easily popped in the mouth, more friendly compared to a sharp-edged, spicy samosa.
Whenever me and my white Australian friend and peace-loving blogger Rebecca Rossi catch up, we usually do dumplings. Din Tai Fung is where we like to go, and my lovely friend always places orders for savoury veggie jiǎo zi and sweet taro paste baos (baos are arguably dumplings as they fit the definition…). This restaurant is on the pricey side and some nights there are queues for a table. In a sense, while some dumplings are cheap convenient eats, some are more upmarket which we can call a treat. Either way, dumplings are essentially made with a patient touch and the time of another’s heart. As American chef Julia Child said on nouvelle cuisine:
“It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”
All around the world, food tastes different, made different and served different, dumplings included. Some might say many places in Australia serve Westernised, non-authentic Chinese dumplings. Compared to eating jiǎo zi, sui mai and har gao in Malaysia and Singapore, many Chinese dumplings I’ve eaten in Australia have incredibly thicker and tougher skin, grittier filling and are saltier. In America, it seems that Westernised Chinese dumplings are common too. A few times I’ve ordered jiǎo zi in Melbourne and they came with straight up soy sauce; traditionally in Chinese culture, eating dumplings come with a vinegar-soy sauce combination or straight up vinegar.
Then again, our taste buds and palates are always changing, and hybrid cuisine is becoming more popular as the world is becoming more multicultural. Chocolate dim sum dumplings, anyone? Or how about bacon cheeseburger dumplings? Or the so-called dumpling the Aussie dim sim which isn’t wholly Chinese food? Just as there are different kinds of dumplings, there are different ways to eat dumplings.
Unlike many a dumpling meal with my friends these days, during yum cha with the family when I was little (and even today), we never ate Chinese dumplings exclusively on their own. Apart from siu mai and har gao, dad ordered other yum cha items like radish cake, chicken glutinous rice and egg tart to make a well-rounded meal. Generally, eating dumplings is fairly healthy if they are vegetable based and not deep-fried – and if you use common sense and watch how many you eat like any other food.
A few years ago, a Chinese restaurant opened beside my office. Around lunchtime on opening day, one of their Chinese wait staff came over to my work and brought over more than a few pieces of steamed and pan-fried chicken, pork, prawn-stuffed jiǎo zi – all on the house. Literally everyone in the office dropped what they were doing and helped themselves to the free dumplings – all gone in less than half an hour. They weren’t the best I’ve had, though, and the skin felt slimy on the tongue. But as one of my white, beer-loving Aussie friends in the office said shortly after:
“When you want good Asian food like tasty dumplings, it’s best to go to a place that is packed with Asians. But, bad dumplings are good dumplings.”
How true. No matter how they taste, there’s always a certain air of excitement when it comes to eating dumplings. Bad dumplings still somewhat fill you up. When you don’t remember what dumplings you ordered, it’s like a game of roulette picking at plates of them in front of you with chopsticks (and dropping dumplings on the floor like I do) in hope of finding a good one that you may like. It’s constantly a laugh trying to put a sizable dumpling whole into your mouth. No matter who we are, Chinese dumplings are what so many of us can agree on when it comes to a meal, serving up priceless physical and emotional connections that make a good meal.
A good simple meal with the goodness of love.
Do you like eating dumplings? Have you eaten bad dumplings?