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Delightful, delicious dumplings

LEGEND has it that the first Chinese dumplings were big dough balls symbolizing human heads -- they were thrown into a river as an offering to the gods for victory in battle. Tan Xian tells us more

There's nothing as traditional for Chinese festivals as dumplings, especially the round ones with the pleasing shape that symbolize unity, harmony and togetherness. They are especially important for family get-togethers, notably in the upcoming Lantern Festival, and are often filled with sweets.

Different festivals feature different dumpings in different parts of the country, but they all represent family reunion and harmony.

Many Chinese families, especially in northern China, traditionally make dumplings together as a group, and then savor the results together.

There are countless kinds of dumplings, flour (wheat, rice, etc), stuffings (meats to nuts and sweets) and ways of rolling the dough, cutting it, shaping and pinching it, and cooking it (steaming, frying, boiling). Dumplings with meat stuffing are usually juicy, and cooks try to capture as much soup in the dumplings as possible before sealing them.

There are many legends about dumplings. One story goes that 1,800 years ago, Zhuge Liang, one of China's greatest strategists, made the first dumpling. He used human head-sized dumplings as sacrifices to comfort the spirits of soldiers who were to be slain in battle.

The big dough balls symbolized the deceased soldiers' heads and were dropped into a river before a battle -- to ask the gods for victory.

Dumplings are a must-eat in different festivals, but vary.


The Lantern Festival next Monday is famous for its dazzling lantern gala and sometimes the fun riddles posted on lanterns. It marks the end of the 15-day Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, and family members are supposed to eat tangyuan together during the Lantern Festival. With a sticky round surface and sweet stuffing, tangyuan represents family unity, completeness and happiness.

Traditional tangyuan are made with sweet fillings, such as sweetened sesame or peanuts.

Actually, the sticky rice dumpling was originally called yuanxiao, and people in the northern China now still call it yuanxiao.

The story goes that the name was ordered to change by Yuan Shikai, an important general and political figure in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who tried to create an imperial dynasty. As yuanxiao can also be translated as "the vanishing of the Yuan era," Yuan banned the name. Then the rice dumplings were called tangyuan.

Jiaozi and wonton

Jiaozi are the crescent-shaped dumplings popular in northern China, round, thin-skinned wonton are the dumplings in the south. They share a 1,400-year history. Jiaozi were described as crescent-shaped wonton when they were recorded in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD). The original meaning is "the shift from the old year to the new year."

For the Lunar New Year, a family would make jiaozi together as a group. Sometimes a sweet or a coin would be hidden in a dumpling. Whoever gets the sweet jiaozi or coin is believed to be in luck for the coming year.

Stuffing varies from pork and other meat to many vegetables.

Jiaozi are sometimes served as a main course. Northern Chinese often offer the dumplings to an important guest or family member who has returned after a long absence, to show happiness.

Jiaozi and wonton are usually cooked in boiling water. They also can be fried or steamed. Wonton, typical of the south, is usually served with soup, while jiaozi is served with dipping sauces.


Qingtuan, green sticky rice dumpling which is named after its color and shape, is a special food in the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Festival, a time to visit the graves of departed relatives and also to enjoy the greenery of spring.

Qingming Festival is around April 5.

The history of qingtuan is said to go back 2,000 years ago when ordinary people were forbidden by law to cook on a certain day. So they made rice dough two days in advance. In the Qing Dynasty, the dough was colored green with plants to deceive the inspection of government, and then sent to those uprising farmers, according to one story.

The dumpling is sweet and usually stuffed with red bean paste.


These dumplings are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, an honorable poet but disgraced poet who ended his life by jumping into a river.

The story goes that people tossed zongzi into the river so that fish would eat the dumplings, and spare the honorable man.

Zongzi are made of glutinous or sticky rice stuffed with fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, then steamed or boiled. Stuffings can be sweet or salty, savory.

The dumplings have two shapes -- xiaojiaozong and zhentouzong. Zhentouzong is shaped like a pillow. The triangle-shaped xiaojiaozong literally means the tiny foot of women with bound feet.

The leaves are filled will raw sticky rice and raw stuffing, then tightened with straws, boiling in water for at least five hours that made a tasty zongzi.

Tips for tangyuan

1. No matter what color, the cooked dough should looks shiny, and if the stuffing is sweet, it should be smooth. Lard and sesame oils are commonly used in making the tangyuan that should have the flavor of the oil. Butter-flavored tangyuan are in supermarkets in yellow packages, under the brand Wanzaimatou.

2. The dough should not stick to your teeth when you eat it.

3. Careful with the boiling water. Too high a boil will buffet the dumplings and they will look plump, which means they are overcooked.

4. Don't overeat. The oily and sweet filling can be difficult to digest ?? if you eat too much.

Where to find good tangyuan

Mei Xin Snack Shop

The sesame stuffing has won top honors for stuffing and the dough is very tasty. The shop preserves its 1980s style of a typical Shanghai snack shop. All the staff are experienced and middle aged. The kitchen is glassed-in and guests can watch the process of hand-making the tangyuan in the old traditional style.

Address: 105 Shaanxi Rd N.

Tel: 6247-0030

Cheng Chang Yuanzi Store

The shop is managed by top snack brand Shen Da Cheng group. The sesame stuffing is delicious but not too sweet.

Address: 87 Yunnan Rd S.


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