Dumplings are more than just a delicious and filling pick-me-up. This snack has a rich cultural history that dates all the way back to Ancient China 1,800 years ago. Chinese dumplings, also known as Jiaozi, have an origin story rooted in legend.
Roots in traditional Chinese medicine
During the Eastern Han Dynasty, a famous physician named Zhang Zhongjing was on his way back to his ancestral village after a long period of absence. It was winter, and fever was quickly becoming a full-blown epidemic. Throughout his journey, Zhang came across many poor people and fellow citizens that succumbed to the harsh weather due to the lack of warm clothes and food, which left them vulnerable to frostbite—especially around the ears. Witnessing their hardship motivated Zhang to find a way to alleviate their pain.
He decided to cook lamb, black peppers, and medicinal herbs. After shredding the ingredients and wrapping them in the scrape of dough skin, he shaped it to look like ears and boiled them. Everyone who was ill was given two “ears” to eat, alongside a bowl of warm soup.
After a few days, people found themselves cured of frostbite, and the epidemic was slowly dying down. Since then, Zhang’s recipe has been used by many people to warm up, with new variants to the filling, such as using vegetables and different kinds of meat, added over the years. This meal was later used to celebrate the Chinese New Year!
Possible origins in Western Asia
Another theory on the origin of Chinese dumplings is that it originated from dumplings that were made in Western Asia.
Back in the Period of the Three Kingdoms, the strategist Zhang Yi mentioned “jiaozi” in his book, entitled Guangya. Writer and politician Yan Zhitui also wrote about how the jiaozi, which came in the shape of a crescent moon, was a treat that everyone around the world loved.
Archeologists have unearthed a bowl of jiaozi from tombs that date all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in Turpan. Since jiaozi bears a resemblance to the gold and silver ingots that were used as currency during the Ming Dynasty, having it served to someone was supposed to bring prosperity. As such, families made it a point to have some at midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Other families have gone as far as to insert a clean coin inside one of the jiaozis being served, leaving it for a lucky person to find it!
Variations of the dumpling
Today, there are plenty of variations to the widely-renowned dumpling. You can have them boiled, steamed, or pan-fried. As mentioned earlier, some dumplings use different ingredients to accommodate different tastes or dietary preferences. The wrap used on the dumpling can also vary; some dumpling wrappers are made out of egg instead of dough.
It’s all in the filling
There is no one specific way to cook dumplings. While the alleged origin of dumplings is rooted in a mixture of lamb, black pepper, and herbs, many other types of fillings have been experimented with and tried since then. The fillings can also differ according to the event that is being celebrated, as over time, certain fillings have taken on different cultural indications!
It’s interesting to think of how this simple snack can hold so much more importance in a different context. As rich as its history is, the best way to enjoy this little morsel is by looking to the present—at the steaming serving of dumplings that you can enjoy for your meal! Not only is it filling for your belly, but it’s also great for sharing too, thus making it a bonding experience that you and your loved ones can share and dine on.
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