Dear Jay McDaniel,
There is an old saying nearly known to all--- men and women, adults and children---in northeastern China, which goes "hao chi bu ru jiao zi, shu fu bu ru tang zhe (好吃不如饺子，舒服不如躺着)". It means that no other food can be more delicious than jiaozi (dumplings), and nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep. If one could have a meal of tasty jiaozi, and then have a sound sleep in bed, how wonderful that would be！
Jiaozi is a kind of traditional food widely loved by Chinese people. Methods of making jiaozi may be as follows: On the one hand, we need to play with flour to prepare jiaozi wrappers; on the other hand, we need to play with fresh meat and vegetables (or for a vegetarian, with eggs and vegetables, or even with vegetables only) to prepare jiaozi fillings; then put the ready-made fillings on each wrapper, fold and stick the sides of the wrapper tight, making it into the shape of a crescent or a gold ingot, then a jiaozi comes into its form at last. We can make jiaozi edible by boiling them in water, steaming them on the tray, or frying them with oil. Because they not only are unique in shape, with thin wrappers and tender fillings, but taste wonderful, rich in nutrients, people love them so much that they never seem to be tired of them. With food made of flour as their staple food, people in northern China (especially the Northeasterners) , old and young, can make jiaozi, and love eating jiaozi.
Up till today, the history that Chinese people eat jiaozi has lasted for at least 2,500 years. There are many stories and legends about (making and eating) jiaozi. The following stories make much sense to me and have impressed me deeply:
One story goes that jiaozi was formerly called “jiao er (delicate ear)”, originated from “qu han jiao er tang (the soup functioning as medicine with jiao er in it to help keep away cold)” invented by Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景), the so-called Medical Saint of the Eastern Han Dynasty in ancient China.
It was said that Zhang Zhongjing cared about poor people’s health very much, often offered them medical treatment and medicine free of charge, and thus saved many people’s lives. One winter, on his way home when he retired from his position, he was heart-broken to see many of his fellow villagers suffering from cold and hunger, even with their ears frostbitten, so he was determined to treat them, and rescue them from such sufferings. As soon as he arrived home, he got his disciples to build a medical shed in the open, set up a big pot, and set to offer medical treatment and medicine to people for free on winter solstice, lasting till the Chinese lunar New Year's Eve.
The name of the medicine he offered to people was called “qu han jiao er tang”, which he invented by concluding the over-300-year clinical practice of the Han Dynasty. The medicine was made in the following way: put mutton, pepper and some herbs in the pot with much water and boil the pot for a long time till things in it are well cooked, take out the things from the pot, chop them into shred, wrap the shred with wrappers in ear-like shape, i.e. “jiao er”, put them into the pot and have them boiled, and then deliver the soup to the patients asking for medicine, each patient receiving a boul of soup with 2 “jiao er” in it at one time. After taking this soup, the patient felt their whole body was warmed up, with warming ears and smooth circulation of blood throughout the body. By taking this soup from the winter solstice to the New Year’s Eve, the patients managed to have fight against the pinching frost and recovered from the frostbitten ear trouble.
To celebrate the New Year, and to celebrate the recovery of their frostbitten ears, people made food in the shape of “jiao er” to eat on the New Year’s Day. From then on, to commemorate the dates when Zhang Zhongjing began to offer treatment and medicine to people and when people recovered from their ear frostbite, people would make and eat this kind of food on every winter solstice and New Year's Day. To distinguish from the prescription of the “jiao er soup”, people called the food “jiao er”, which later turned into “jiao zi”. Hence we have “jiaozi” today. Nowadays, although it is no longer necessary for people to treat frostbitten ears with the “jiao er soup”, jiaozi as a type of food has become common and widely loved by people.
Another story is also broadly spread among Chinese people. We all know, according to Chinese lunar calendar, the most important traditional festival for the Chinese is the Spring Festival. Long ago, Chinese people began to observe the custom of staying up late on the New Year’s Eve to say goodbye to the passing old year and to welcome the coming new year. The most common activity conducted on the New Year’s Eve was that the whole family gathered together to make a kind of food to bid farewell to the outgoing year:
They loudly chopped meat (rou肉) and vegetables (cai菜) (so that neighbors could hear the noise of the chopping) to make fillings, in which “rou” “cai” sounded similar to another Chinese phrase---“you cai(有财)”, meaning “having much wealth”; they wrapped such fillings into the wrappers to make a kind of crescent-shaped food; they got ready a pot of boiling water, put the ready-made crescent-shaped food into the pot to boil at midnight, to be specific, at 12 o’clock pm of the New Year’s Eve, then the whole family sat down around the table to eat the well cooked crescent-shaped food together, symbolizing the auspicious meaning of family reunion and “having much wealth and good fortune” in the new year.
In addition, according to ancient Chinese chronometry, 12 o’clock at midnight was called “zi”, so when the bell rang at the “zi” moment on the New Year’s Eve, people believed that they managed to have stepped into the new year from the old year, which was called “geng sui jiao zi (更岁交子)”, meaning to have transformed from the old year to the new year at the zi moment. And the food eaten at the midnight moment (i.e., the zi moment) was called “jiao zi (交子)”, meaning to have passed the old year and stepped into the new year. To make it more like a name of a type of food, a new Chinese character, “饺”, was created by adding the radical “饣” (meaning food) to “交”, thus “交子” became “饺子”. On the other hand, to make the wrappers, people had to “huo mian (和面)” (meaning to mix the flour with water and knead the dough), in which the verb “huo (和)” had similar meaning to “he (合)”. “合” and “交” both could mean “to gather together”. Therefore, jiaozi was used to signify the transformation of 2 years at the zi moment and the happy reunion of the family.
My family come from northeastern China, to be more precisely, from Harbin, and my husband is a native of Harbin. When homesick, he often hums the tone of “dong bei er ren zhuan (song-and-dance duet)”, or softly sings “my home is by the Songhuajiang River in the Northeast”. He is capable of making and loves eating different kinds of food made of flour, espacially jiaozi. Early this morning, he bought back some beef, carrots and onions, and is now busy making jiaozi in the kitchen, together with my daughter. They two, father and daughter, make quite a good team, the father playing with flour to prepare the wrappers, while the daughter playing with beef and vegetables to prepare the fillings and wrap jiaozi! And the jiaozi they are making and we can share today is called “steamed beef-carrot jiaozi”:
Recipe: flour, beef, carrots, onion, vegetable oil, shallot, ginger, salt, cooking wine, and water; Sauce ingredients: smashed garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, monosodium glutamate (chili oil, salt); Suitable season to eat this kind of jiaozi: winter.
Procedures of making this kind of jiaozi: (1) Kneading the dough: mix the flour with warm water, knead it into a dough, and cover the dough and leave it to become proofed. (2) Preparing fillings: chop the beef into meat mud, cut the carrots and onions into tiny pieces, dice the shallot and ginger into fine pieces; put the diced shallot and ginger into the beef mud, together with appropriate amount of cooked vegetable oil, salt, cooking wine, and cold water, stir the mixture along the same direction until the materials in it are well blended; then put the carrot and onion pieces into the mixture and stir again to make them mix well, so the fillings are well prepared. (3) Rolling the wrappers: knead the well-proofed dough, divide it into small balls, press the balls flat with palms, roll them into thin wrappers. (4) Wrapping jiaozi: put appropriate amount of fillings on the wrapper, fold it and stick the sides tight, making it a crescent-shaped or gold-ingot-shaped jiaozi. (5) Steaming jiaozi: put appropriate amount of water in a steaming pot and boil the water in it, put the well wrapped jiaozi on the trays in the pot, cover the pot, boil it again and let it steam for another 20 minutes or so, take away the cover, and take out the well-steamed jiaozi from the pot, and the so-called “steamed beef-carrot jiaozi” are ready.
Yes, the “steamed beef-carrot jiaozi” made by my husband and daughter are out of the pot now! How inviting they are! Come and share with us ...
Dear Xie Bangxiu,
I am really hungry! Hungry for jiaozi and for more stories from China.
Let me quickly offer a short word about the zi moment: that moment at twelve midnight in which we pass from one year into the next, as if leaving one room and entering another. With my Whiteheadian ears, I could not help but think that every moment is a zi moment of a kind. In a certain way every single moment of a day is a passing from one state of affairs into a slightly new one: if not a new year then at least a new moment. Whitehead had a name for these moments. He called them “moments of experience” or “occasions of experience.” In his view they were the building blocks of our lives. Some people think we are made of atoms and molecules; Whitehead thinks we are made of zi moments.
Perhaps we should invent a new custom: a constructively postmodern greeting. Every time we see someone on the street we should say “Happy Zi Moment.” Of course not all moments of our lives are really so happy. Not all years are so happy, either. But they are all new and the very fact that they are new means that, in each moment, there is a fresh possibility for building a new life from out of the past and for responding to the situation. This fresh possibility is what Whitehead means by “the initial phase of the subjective aim.” There is no need to worry about the terminology. What is important is that each moment contains its own fresh possibility: its own jiaozi-possibility.
This takes me to the story of Zhang Zhongjing. He was indeed open to one such possibility: namely that of making soup with jiao er within it, for the sake of people who were poor and cold, and who needed warmth for their bodies. With my Whiteheadian ears I cannot help but be warmed by this story; and by the very idea that jiaozi bear resemblance to ears. In this story we find two ideas combined that are very important to those who are influenced by Whitehead: listening to the needs of the poor with sensitive and caring ears, and responding in practical and creative ways by being open to fresh possibilities. Listening and Creativity: these are the Yin and Yang of a Whiteheadian approach.
Of course we hear a bit of jazz, too, in Zhang Zhongjing. How we hear the improvisational spirit in his building of a medical shed and his blending of different medicinal ingredients into a big pot. There’s something very Whiteheadian about his impulse to heal, and about the big pot, too. Here we do not have isolated pots, each for one individual: but a big pot for all, with no one left behind. The Whiteheadian outlook encourages big pot thinking. If we live in this spirit, we have an ear for the common good of the world: of China and of the United States, and, of course, of people in all nations. And the animals and plants, too. In China big pot thinking gives rise to the idea of building a harmonious society or an ecological civilization: harmony among people and harmony with the earth. As a Christian I think Jesus was a big pot thinker, too; and Gandhi and Martin Luther King as well. They had the Zhang Zhongjing spirit, too.
Of course even as we might be concerned with the common good of the world, we are also concerned with the well-being of those close to us, including our families. This is especially important at Spring Festival. As you explain, this is a time when families get together and usher in a new year together, doing their best to affirm forgotten bonds or build new bonds where bonds have been absent. There is no need to romanticize family life as if it is always happy. It is not. We live in a time when people in many different parts of the “modern” world are so trapped in the quest for making money, for achieving recognition, for wielding power, that they too often lose sight of the communal zi moments, when family and friends are gathered around a meal, prepared by loving hands, with ingredients nourished by the sun and soil, and cultivated by farmers, whose work is the very foundation of social life. These moments of sharing together are reminders of the true value of life: not money but mutual care, with laughter added. In these moments we taste what Whiteheadians mean by relationality. The relationality is known through feelings, but also seen in the jiaozi. In every particular reality of our world, says Whitehead, the many of the universe are gathered together into the specificity of the object. The universe is present in each grain of sand, said William Blake, or each jiaozi.
You say the steamed beef-carrot jiaozi is out of the pot now? Is it ready to be eaten? I didn’t prepare the flour or the fillings. I am not sure I would be any good at it. Does it require perfection? You must teach me. But I do like to try new things. And I do know how to eat. May I join you? I’m coming over.