No Chinese New Year celebration north of the Yangtze River would be complete without a jiaozi-wrapping party. This is the kind of bash where everyone heads to the kitchen, dons an apron and begins making tray after tray of succulent dumplings that cradle an assortment of fillings.
Unlike Christmas cookie parties or backyard barbecues here in the West, where just a small handful of people do the honors, jiaozi are made by one and all: men and women, old and young, friends and family. And while everyone looks forward to eating them, the most fun is to be had in the kitchen where the gossip and energy is centered.
Having married into a Chinese family a long time ago, this charming custom has gradually become part of my own life, and it is one that my Chinese husband and our friends look forward to with as much anticipation as I had waiting for Santa. Part of the appeal is the chance for my husband and our Chinese friends to grasp the tendrils of childhood memories, and part is the prospect of connecting with the old tradition. But primarily this is just a great excuse to enjoy a party that is completely renao — “hot and noisy” and full of fun.
One of the best things about this sort of get-together is that so much of the hard work is done by the guests. The host or hostess just sets out some made-ahead dishes and drinks for the guests to enjoy as they straggle in, waits until everyone is relaxed and happy, and then herds them all into the kitchen where dough and fillings made the day before await.
Easy make-ahead dishes
The dishes I like to set out for my guests to enjoy with wine or tea are extremely easy and can be done way ahead of time. Rich and succulent Beijing-Style Smoked Chicken is the center attraction, a plump bird scented with Sichuan peppercorns, smoldering tea and spices. It can be frozen and then heated up the day of the party. Drunken Soybeans are utterly delicious and can also be made a few days ahead. The simple recipe below for Steamed Chinese Charcuterie takes only minutes to prepare before it is steamed.
Other stress-free offerings include Beijing’s Aged Vinegar Peanuts and a Cold Cucumber Appetizer with Chili Oil, a tray of easy, make-ahead desserts such as slightly salty Sea Moss Cookies and a gingerbread called Malay Cake.
For serving, have napkins, as well as lots of chopsticks and Chinese spoons (or forks and spoons), set up on a sideboard with small plates for the appetizers, a stack of bowls to hold each guest’s jiaozi and either small saucers or bowls for their condiments. These should include little pitchers of good soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and Chili Pepper Oil. Guests drip a bit of these into their saucers as desired and then dip the dumplings.
If your friends have never wrapped dumplings before, you can play this video while they’re snacking to show them how it’s done.
Now the only thing left is to set up your kitchen for your band of helpers. Arrange for someone who isn’t particularly interested in the wrapping and rolling to be responsible for the dirty dishes and for boiling the dumplings.
Have the following ready:
- Full aprons for everyone
- Two or three short Chinese rolling pins (or inch-thick dowels about a foot long)
- Tea towels to cover the dough and the filled dumplings
- Baking sheets to hold the filled dumplings
- Extra flour for rolling out the wrappers
- Bowls and spoons for the various fillings
- Two large pots and a slotted spoon to boil the dumplings
- Large rimmed plates for the cooked dumplings
- A smooth work area for rolling out the dough
- Turn on the music, open the wine and the party will soon take on a life of its own. Happy Year of the Dragon!
Steamed Chinese Charcuterie
蒸臘肉臘腸 Zheng larou lachang
Serves 8 to 12 as a side dish
- Wipe the meats off with a damp paper towel. If the sausages or cured meats are difficult to cut (which sometimes can happen if they are aged too long), steam them for about 10 minutes to soften them up. Trim off the ends of the sausages and cut any skin off of the other cured meats before slicing them thinly on the diagonal.
- Arrange them attractively on a rimmed, heat-proof plate. Then, trim the skin off of the cured meats and slice them on a thin diagonal. Arrange them attractively on a rimmed, heat-proof plate.
- Cut the ginger against the grain (crosswise) into very thin slices, then cut the slices into julienne (matchsticks). Pile the ginger in the center of the plate so that it looks like the stamens of a flower (the meats represent the petals). Sprinkle the gaoliang, or rice wine, over all of the meats.
- Steam the meats uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until all the fat has turned from white to translucent; taste a piece to be sure. Serve hot.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips lived in Taiwan for eight years and recently completed her first book, a collection of regional Chinese recipes. She writes a blog, Out to Lunch, and is a member of the IACP and the Slow Food Movement. Phillips is based in California.
Top photo: A variety of Chinese charcuterie. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips