Jiaozi Origin and Spread
“Bending their waists, they are poised like tigers,
And with their knees knocking together,
they are jammed and leaning one upon another.
Plates and trays are no sooner presented than everything is gone;
The cook, working without stop, is pressed and harried.
Before his hands can turn to another batch,
Additional requests again arrive.
With lips and teeth working smoothly,
Their taste is keen, and their palate is sharp.
After three steamer-baskets,
They go on to another course.”
-Shu Xi (ca. 264-ca. 304) “Rhapsody of Pasta”
(“Bing fu”) (Knechtges 236)
In this poem, dumpling eaters are like a pack of wild beasts, insatiable in their hunger to the point where the cook cannot keep up with their demands. This has not always been the case, however, since jiaozi have not always existed in China. In fact, Central Asia, India, and the near East are better known for the cooking of cakes, breads, and other doughy foods, and “[a]lthough a definite connection is difficult to make, there are a few pieces of evidence that indicate that Chinese contact with western, southern, and central Asian peoples provided Chinese knowledge of foreign breads and other doughy foods” (Knechtges 234).
“Archeological finds and written materials from the Han through Yuan Dynasties (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E. and 1276-1368 C.E., respectively), show Chinese food strongly influenced by foods of southern and western Asia” (Newman 2)
Of course, grains have always been a significant part of the Chinese diet, as the basic staples were starches of either wheat or rice (Lin 11). In the north, wheat has been and continues to be predominant, whereas in the south, along the Yangtze River, rice is the main staple (Lin 11). During the Han period (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) millet and wheat were the most common grains (Lin 11). Because cooking the whole grain of wheat (wheat berries) requires up to three hours and fuel scarcity (e.g. timber and logging) has been a problem throughout Chinese history, it is likely that millet and rice were more popular because they only take 15 and 20 minutes to cook respectively (Lin 12).
Eventually, the Chinese likely devised the method of grinding wheat into flour to make it digestible sometime in the fifth century B.C. as to avoid cooking it whole (Lin 12). Flour mills became more widespread in latter half of the first century A.D., though we are not entirely certain about the origin of this technology (Lin 12). It could have either been invented by indigenous Chinese people or the Han Chinese could have borrowed the concept from Persia via exploration and increased trade (Lin 12). Some hypothesize that milling technology was introduced to China from the Middle East or West during the early Han dynasty and thus, this when the Chinese began making dough out of wheat flour (Knechtges 234). In fact, according to food writer Andrea Nguyen, “Wheat-milling technology had been intro duced to China from western Asia (now the Middle East), and at the time of Shu Xi’s composition, meat-filled morsels were prepared in other parts of Asia, so the Chinese were adopters, not inventors” (3). Following the creation of noodles from combining wheat flour and water in the North, flour was used to make dumplings, steamed buns, and baked cakes (Newman 15). Moreover, soy sauce, an ingredient common to jiaozi recipes, was not known before the Han Dynasty, further alluding to its origin (Newman 32). By and large, it is understood that jiaozi, a specialty of Beijing, date as far back as the late Han Dynasty (25 to 220 C.E.) (Nguyen 31).
“The movement of food in China began when early nomads helped individual and local culinary worlds meet and mix. Foods certainly moved along what we now call the Silk Road; they even moved long before that” (Newman 88)
Several centuries later, following the Han dynasty, the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618-906) ushered in an evolution of Chinese cuisine, ranging from foreign culinary adaptations to an advance in agricultural techniques (Lin 12). The city of Xian (Shaanxi Province) in the center of China was the capital of China during the Tang Dynasty, then known as Chang-An. This city was “at the western end of what we now call the Silk Road before and after Tang Dynasty times. It was a place where Asian and Middle Eastern foods made their way into Chinese cuisine, so foods with these names can indicate eastern or western places of origin, with few spices or many in their dishes” (Newman 115). In fact, it is possible that Chang-An was the dissemination point for dumplings in China.
Steamed, baked, and fried breads made with either rice or wheat flour also became extremely popular, and millet diminished as wheat flour took its place (Lin 12). During the Tang dynasty, frying became the most popular preparation method and the wok (guo or kuo) began appearing in homes (Lin 12-13; Newman 17). Moreover, this era produced “Two of the most enduring Chinese specialties – jiao-zi, or stuffed dumplings (then called hun-t’un), and chun-juan, or spring rolls, [which] came from Beijing, although it is possible that these little dumplings originated in central Asia” (Lin 12). Because many of these doughy foods were made with foreign ingredients (e.g. spices) or inspired from foreign chefs and recipes, “Many of the cakes were referred to as hu, meaning ‘foreign’”(Lin 13).
It should be noted that “[b]etween the end of the Tang and the beginning of the Song, the center of gravity of Chinese civilization shifted from the north to the south” (Sabban 1167). Presumably, food also underwent major shifts during this time. In this way, the north is now more famous for jiaozi, a dumpling with a thicker wrapper than the wonton, where as small steamed and pan-fried dumplings are characteristic of Southern China today (Lin 119; Newman 94).