Dumplings have a rich and delicious Lunar New Year history

Dumplings represent wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture. As food columnist Andrew Coppolino explains, one historical myth is that they resemble coin currency from a thousand years ago.

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Celebrate the Chinese New Year with dumplings!

A man carries a tray of meat dumplings at a village hall in Daxing, south of Beijing, Saturday Jan. 24, 2009. Villagers gathered Saturday to make thousands of meat dumplings in preparation for a feast to celebrate Chinese New Year, which begins Monday. Dumplings are a traditional food eaten to celebrate the New Year. (AP Photo/Greg Baker) (The Associated Press)

According to the Chinese zodiac, which you might just find on the paper place mat at your favourite neighbourhood Chinese restaurant, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey and the way to celebrate is with dumplings.

The little morsels that come in a variety of shapes and tastes are a delicious and symbolically important part of the culinary festivities in Chinese culture.

You have a bit of time to partake, too. Chinese New Year is a big event. While the actual date on the lunisolar Chinese calendar is Feb. 8, celebrations can last an entire week and sometimes longer.

People born in the Year of the Monkey (2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, etc.) are characterized as quick-witted, curious, innovative and mischievous. It should be noted that this is also believed to be one of the most unlucky years in the Chinese calendar for monkeys, and they should be especially careful with their investments.

To head off this astrological bad luck at the pass, it might just be wise to wear a piece of red clothing or a red accessory for luck.

Better yet: Eat dumplings.

Wealth and prosperity

The little dough balls - usually stuffed with various ingredients from chives and shrimp to pork and cabbage - have special meaning in Chinese culture. Just as long noodles represent longevity, dumplings represent wealth and prosperity.

While the origin of the word dumpling is somewhat murky, one possibility can be traced to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), which represented a period of unprecedented growth in China, including one of humankind's earliest paper currencies called "jiaozi." That word eventually became a name for the dumplings which were made to look like pieces of gold and silver.

It's a fun myth, but the reality is that dumplings made use of relatively accessible ingredients in your pantry (like flour) which can be used with some water for a dough in order to stretch out harder-to-get ingredients like meat and vegetables.

"In northern China, food was pretty scarce, especially this late in the winter," writes E.N. Anderson in his book The Food of China. "You're down to what little meat and flour you've got left. You stretch the meat as far as possible."

Put the ingredients together and you have a delightful little morsel with which to celebrate a new year, prosperity and the hopes that spring is just around the corner. At family dumpling-making gatherings on the eve of the new year, a coin may be slipped into a dumpling for good luck.

Several varieties

There are dozens of different dumplings from all over China and surrounding countries: Steamed, boiled, pan-fried, deep-fried, they are delicious.

Har gow is a translucent shell-shaped dumpling with firm shrimp inside. Delicate exterior pleats are difficult to execute but critical for a properly made dumpling and the wrapper must be thin enough for the shrimp inside to be visible. Apparently, this dumpling came about when a teahouse owner in the south of Guangzhou was hoping to beat his dumpling competition so he made har gow with shrimp right off the boats that plied the South China Sea near his restaurant.

A man carries a tray of meat dumplings at a village hall in Daxing, south of Beijing, in 2009. (AP Photo/Greg Baker) (The Associated Press)

This dumpling has made a wider cultural impact, too: The Puma athletic footwear company has created a shoe modeled on the har gow dumpling. I kid you not.

From Guangdong come flat half-moon wrappers of wheat and tapioca starch with an elastic skin. They're supposed to be a bit rubbery, so enjoy. Jian jiao potstickers are scrumptious with that slight char and browning they get after being steamed and pan-fried. At Japanese restaurants, these are like their gyoza dumpling kin.

You might find xiao long bao, which are little domed or pyramidal-shaped dumplings with a slightly twisted point. They can be really hot and soupy inside, so be careful if you pop them in your mouth whole.

Siu mai is a northern Chinese dumpling that has been dated to the Yuan Dynasty (200 BCE and was the empire established by Kublai Khan). It's an open-top unleavened wheat dough dumpling in the shape of a wrinkly cup which has been filled with various meat, fish and vegetables. We might know the southern version best with minced shrimp and pork stuffed inside and squeezed gently to look like a flower. It's often garnished with fish or crab roe.

While steamed pork buns are not a dumpling, they are favourite: Cha siu bao is yeasty, spongy leavened wheat dough that is constructed to look like flower petals in bloom. Inside is the rich crimson BBQ pork which gives the mouthful a blend of sweet and savoury.

'Invigorate the heart'

Many Chinese restaurants will have dumplings, of course. On a very large scale, The Mandarin all-you-can-eat chain has its "Dumpling Festival" running now until February 28. However, look for restaurants serving dim sum to celebrate with dumplings.

After all, dim sum translates to a phrase something like "the little bits that touch or invigorate the heart" – and that is exactly what dumplings are designed to do.

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


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