While most everyone else is enduring a post-Christmas-Hanukkah-Orthodox Christmas-Kwanza-New Year hangover that is January, in China, quite possibly the largest migration in the history of mankind is underway (in my best David Attenborough accent). Now and until Spring Festival, hundreds of millions of Chinese will leave the big cities and return to their hometowns. It's pretty crazy to see no one around, Shanghai is almost as barren as that time the government gave people awesome vacation packages to Huangshan as an incentive to leave for the G20 summit.
A lot of people I know working in Shanghai have actually been here for quite a while, and this yearly ritual is the only time many can go back home and connect with their roots. At any other time of the year, people are full speed ahead. It's astounding to see the level of achievement Chinese kids aspire to. It dawns as a peculiar contrast to those at retirement age who can be seen repeatedly hitting themselves, rubbing against trees, or walking backwards for apparently no reason, no questions asked. These days, young adults have far more opportunity and education than their parents ever had and are coming to the cities by the thousands to work as English teachers, to create virtual storefronts selling merchandise on TaoBao or JingDong, in consulting, finance, advertising, you name it. Young Chinese people work really hard and have loads of pressure on them in both their professional lives and from their families. Now is a time to go home, relax, and reflect. The hype around the lunar new year in China gives you a similar feeling to the long Christmas season.
But whereas Christmas in the states is a celebration of faith (right?) and only by a majority of people, the Chinese New Year is sort of less open to interpretation. It's a secular holiday celebrated by EVERYONE, a time of commemorating tradition and consequently reinforcing the family as the core unit of society. The Chinese New Year holiday observes a litany of cultural traditions and practices associated with food, family, and rhetoric that I can only begin to understand. Don't clean on the first day of the new year, cut your hair now but not later, light fireworks on the fourth evening and you will be rich, give away ostentatious amounts of money, etc. Anyways, it's likely I'm being ignorant. Differing provinces and regions vary slightly in tradition, but some are universal, and one that I can speak of with relative proficiency...making (eating) dumplings. And that's what this article is really about.
So, those that know me well or at all, know I have an obsessive relationship with Chipotle. When I left the states to live abroad, naturally there was a gaping hole in my daily routine/diet that needed to be filled. While there is nothing in this world that can quite replace the mouthwatering complexity and succulent divinity of a bite of Chipotle, there is something that comes dangerously close. This is the fabled dumpling, a sort of mini-burrito if you will. To be clear, dumpling is an all-encompassing term I'm using to familiarize the ill-informed about what is actually a culinary cosmos of different wrapping styles, cooking methods, fillings, textures, tastes, and cultural backgrounds.
The Chinese New Year celebrations often involve the making of shui jiao 水饺 (dumplings), guo tie 锅贴 (potstickers), or xiao long bao 小笼包. I've been told they are good omens for wealth and fortune because of their resemblance to nuggets of gold. Jiao zi can be cooked in a few different ways: boiled, steamed, or fried. You should generally be careful about where and what time you get your potstickers, your bowels will respond accordingly.
Xiao long bao are little pockets of meat steamed in stacks of bamboo baskets. These are entirely different from jiao zi in cooking method, amount of dough used, and wrapping technique. They are pinched and rippled at the top and encase a small portion of scalding hot soup that even the most experienced eaters caution. They are worth every bit of the second degree burns you will inevitably suffer from squirting lava juice on yourself.
Sheng jian 生煎, a famous breakfast dumpling in Shanghai, is fried in a large, shallow pan of oil. They are lined up and left alone during the cooking process, except for the occasional spray of water or tilt of the pan to distribute oil. The hard burnt bottoms, the fat of the pork, and the gelatin that cooks down into a fatty soup combine for a flavor and texture I can describe in no other way besides, "dank".
Have you ever eating something so delightful, the texture so perfect, the mouthful so rapturous, that it transports you to another dimension like that of the Fae? Heeding Kvothe's caution, you'd think this is something to stay away from. But I tell you everytinn (in the voice of Ms. Swan from Comedy Central), there exists a heaven on earth found in the inner dwellings of a restaurant called Qian Li Xiang Hun Dun 千里香馄饨. It's even in the name, "A thousand years of good smell". My Chinese friend once told me she doesn't eat there because there's nothing that can smell THAT good and be natural or healthy. She says crazy, surprisingly true shit all the time. Qian Li Xiang is a chain restaurant from Fujian province that has taken over Shanghai. It can be spotted from a street corner with a relative frequency to that of Starbucks in the states...although...I hesitate to compare Starbucks to Qian Li Xiang, the vibe is manifestly different. It feels very "chinese" for lack of a better description. They are all family owned and have different food selections and variations on lajiao 🌶️, BUT they all serve hun dun 馄饨 (hwin dwin) or wonton at the very least.
Qian Li Xiang offer a variety of fillings for their wonton, but the two most famous are 'bok choy/pork' 荠菜肉 and 'mushroom/pork' 香菇肉. You can have your hun dun with shrimp, but never chicken or beef. The hundun are rolled fresh each morning and evening like clockwork. The small 小 hun dun are made with a minimal amount of filling and constructed by the closing of a fist, much like crumpling paper. The big 大 wonton require a little more skill...this is the good stuff. A small portion of filling is scraped onto the middle of a circular flour wrapping, then a cute flick of the wrist and application of water as an adhesive, and voilà. I make it sound easy, but the staggering efficiency and dexterity of these creators can only be achieved after thousands (qian li...get it?) of wontons. The best hun dun are wrapped tightly in order to have fewer pockets of air in the filling, there is nothing worse on this earth than a sloppy hun dun. Get that sloppy shit out of here.
I usually order "shiwu kuai de ji cai da hun dun" (15 kuai worth of bok choy big wonton). That's 15 wontons for $1.45 usd. The hun dun is then boiled in a huge vat of water and served either in a bowl of soup (tang de) with cilantro, spring onion, chicken stock, and/or variety of spices depending OR just the hun dun drizzled with peanut butter sauce (hua sheng jiang). That's right, I said dumplings and peanut butter sauce. It's every bit as delicious as you can imagine, and the yi kuai (1 rmb) extra won't give you a moments hesitation. Ask for, "hua sheng jiang gan ban de" (peanut butter sauce mixed and dry).
Even the most delectable hun dun is only as good as the lajiao🌶️ that complements it. You need it wet and stirred, where the chopped peppers are properly oiled and can be grabbed with chopsticks. Dry lajiao is unforgivable.
Say hello with a little slurp of hot broth to acquaint yourself with your newly served bowl of hun dun. Using your spoon, bite that first baby hun dun in half. Then, apply a generous amount of the aforementioned la jiao to the second half and prepare for departure. Repeat. The slightly hard chew of the flour wrapping, the succulent flavor of the pork and cooked fat, the freshness of the bok choy combined with the pungency of the spice and oil from the lajiao, mix for an ethereal experience. Apply vinegar for a little sour and more lajiao as needed. It's fresh (most of the time), quick, inexpensive, and convenient.
Eating hun dun is kinda like my proclivity for eating tacos, an acquired urge that reveals itself with repetitive and excessive indulgence. Except they are always happy hour prices. What more can you ask for?
Xin nian kuai le! 新年快乐! Happy New Year!