Jiaozi cures growling tummies...and frozen ears.
by Jay Friedman
May 24, 2018
Elaine Song loves to talk about the origin of Chinese dumplings. She explains that over 1800 years ago Zhang Zhongjing, a medical master from the Eastern Han Dynasty and a founder of Chinese herbal medicine, noticed many people suffering from frozen ears one winter. Following an ancient recipe for curing frostbite, he cooked chunks of mutton with various warming herbs and spices. Zhongjing put the minced stew in dough wrappers, boiled them, and gave the dumplings with broth to his patients, who were cured.
These ear-shaped dumplings became known as jiao’er (tender ears), with jiaozi now a more general term for dumplings. Jiaozi is also the name of Song’s newly reinvented restaurant in the International District. As she’ll soon open a branch of Meet Fresh (a tea and sweets franchise originating in Taiwan) in Bellevue, her Fruit Bliss Cafe converted from desserts to dumplings earlier this year.
Song says that her family has a dumpling restaurant in Beijing, and that she’s trying to replicate her grandmother’s recipes. The current menu contains a dozen types of dumplings. All are available as pan-fried pot stickers, but water-boiled is a better way to enjoy the silky texture of the wrappers, made through a labor-intensive process of the dough having nine passes through a hand-cranked pasta machine.
“The secret to the dumplings is the flavor,” Song says, adding, “we put oil that cooks for four hours into the meat filling.” The oil, infused with Chinese herbs and more (cinnamon, cordyceps flowers, and the likes), provides both unique flavor and perhaps medicinal quality.
Flavor and more can be a challenge for some of her customers, though. Pork is the primary meat used in the dumplings; it’s beloved by Song’s Chinese customers. But others sometimes ask for chicken, which she says is unheard of in her experience in China. She’s working on adding some vegetarian options, though both chive and fennel are problematic for some due to their strong fragrance and flavor. The same goes for cumin, which matches beautifully with lamb and balances the natural sweetness of carrots in the lamb and carrot jiaozi. She’s also reluctant to serve the BBQ cuttlefish dumplings. The Chinese people love the grilled, smoky flavor of the mollusc and its ink but many non-Chinese find the black color off-putting, sometimes sending the dumplings back to the kitchen.
Song’s staff tries to educate customers about their choices, encouraging them to try traditional favorites and experiment with something new. For example, while many people are familiar with pork and cabbage dumplings, the pork and pickled cabbage adds an interesting twist of flavor.
Of immediate importance, of course, is to simply enjoy the dumplings. But listen up. Eating them can also be critically important, as Song says that there’s belief in China that if you don’t have jiaozi in winter, you’ll have ear pain.