Making Jiaozi and Honoring our ancestors
Remembering those no longer with us: Chinese Jiaozi and Family
When my niece comes home from University the first thing she asks me is “Auntie Rob when can you make some jiaozi for us?”Eating dumplings together as a family has been a tradition of ours for three generations. This was introduced by our father, who was Chinese and who migrated from China to the US in 1942. In 1956 he immigrated to Jamaica, where he met and married my mother. I am the first of their four offspring and I love to cook.
Our father was sixteen when he left China. His godmother, Gan Ma, who had looked after Dad during the war, and her family also relocated to the US. Dad’s father was head of the Chinese Red Cross so he stayed in China until the Communists took over.
One of Dad’s vivid childhood memories was of Gan Ma making a hundred jiaozi just for him, although we always thought that was a bit of an exaggeration. I believe it was Gan Ma’s way of showing her love for him, and the memory stayed with him throughout his life. He had lost his mother the year before the Japanese invaded Beijing. Gan Ma had three girls of her own, but during WW2, she acquired two more charges: my father and his sister whom she looked after for the duration of the conflict.
Gan Ma and Daddy had a very special bond. Gan Ma, her daughters, and their families were a large part of our life growing up. They were his only family in the US and were his connection to his life in China. Whenever we visited them in the US they would all speak mandarin, especially when they didn’t want us, children, to understand. We would spend wonderful times together and eat delicious Chinese food that Ga Ma had prepared.
We learned to make jiaozi from Gan Ma when she visited us in Jamaican. I was a child at the time and she was quite old. I don’t remember having many conversations with Ga Ma, but I remember that she was kind and quiet. I remember she picked our Jasmine flowers and made tea with them, she was skillful with a Chinese cleaver, and she really loved our Dad. I think teaching my mother how to cook a few authentic Chinese dishes that our father loved was probably her way of ensuring that Mum would continue to make them for him. Dad said he knew that Ga Ma had accepted Mum when she started speaking to Mum in Mandarin, although Mum did not speak one word of Mandarin.
Gan Ma would sit in the kitchen and show us how to make jiaozi, similar to how I have taught my nieces. She taught us how to use the egg white like glue to seal them so they didn’t open up while boiling, pleating the edges and curving them around like a crab. In those days we made the wrappers from scratch and it was hard to get them thin enough and it took forever. Now, of course, you can buy the skins in supermarkets and they are much easier to handle. I still prefer to make the filling of the pork mince and cabbage myself and use the store-bought skins for convenience.
Even when you use store-bought skins, however, it still takes the better part of an afternoon to make the jiaozi for a group. So invite some friends and family over and put them to work! It’s fun sitting with a few people chatting, drinking, and laughing while making the dumplings. I suspect that this is an age-old practice, and I mean thousands of years old!
Our favourite way to serve jiaozi is to boil them in soup for about 12 minutes and scoop them out with a slotted spoon and gently put them in individual bowls. I serve the Jiaozi with small side bowls of dipping sauce made from soy, vinegar, Guiyang hot chili sauce.
I prefer the pork jiaozi, but I have also made both the chicken and vegetarian ones and they are also delicious. My husband calls my chicken jiaozi in Jamaican chicken and corn soup my Jewish-Chinese-Jamaican fusion dish.
My youngest sister and I visited China with our father in 2000. It was a nostalgic experience for our father, and deeply moving for us because our father hadn’t been back to China for over 60 years. We went to Xian and saw the Terra Cotta warriors and learned how a ruthless emperor had buried 40,000 workers alive after they toiled for 10 years carving thousands of warriors just so they could guard him in his afterlife. One of my most vivid memories of Xian, however, is going to a nondescript restaurant that served only jiaozi. The carts of different jiaozi just kept coming around in bamboo steamers and we gleefully tucked in. We washed them down with beer and when we were full we took the leftovers in black plastic bags back to the hotel. Even when cold they were delicious with a cup of tea.
Our family tradition of making and eating jiaozi, and other Chinese dishes that Gan Ma taught us, reminds us of our father and the memories he shared with us of our Grandfather and Grandmother and of growing up in Beijing. A tradition of spending Thanksgiving with Gan Ma’s family keeps those bonds and memories alive. These small little dumplings have been an expression of love, family and friendship, which I am sure will be carried on by future generations of our family.
Author: Robin Lim Lumsden