Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Consider the Jiaozi

"There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other." — David Foster Wallace

Jiaozi, pot stickers, gyoza, momocha, jiao'er, or, more simply, Chinese dumplings have existed, been cooked and eaten, for, at the most liberal side of the estimations, at least four thousand years. The guotie, or pan-fried jiaozi (the most delicious and least good-for-you variation on the Chinese dumpling) has been around for a less-hefty one thousand years (all according to Wikipedia) and is reportedly good for the human soul, though, metaphysically speaking, the sustenance of the soul is a mystery only penetrated insofar as knowing that metaphorical versions of chicken soup possess the ability to lift a soul in a low moment, though (and this is philosophical backtracking) the notion that there can even be said to be "metaphorical versions of chicken soup" let alone a soul that consumes them — that notion requires a house-of-cards stack of premises that is, alas, a bit fragile. These guotie (called Peking ravioli in Bah-ston), regardless of their supposed ability to sustain the human soul, do possess the uncanny quality of filling the human stomach with meat, vegetables, and a starchy outer layer in one convenient package without resorting to the sandwich-stack Western style of doing things. And, ah, the kicker: you can find them (really) anywhere in Beijing, and they're dirt cheap.

In 2006, the average yearly salary for an urban worker in Beijing was 1,759 yuan (US$1,517). Compare this to the average weekly wage of a Manhattanite: $2,404. In China in 1959-61 somewhere between 14 and 40 million people died of famine. The national population in 1949 was about 400 million; today it is roughly 1.6 billion. Violent crime has increased steadily since the 1980s. The burgeoning gap between rich and poor defies the notion of a classless society.

In Beijing, steaming, squat, ill-painted little food vendor stands pepper the busier neighborhoods (really they're all "busier" neighborhoods), operating year-round to supply the cheapest, best taste-to-price ratio dishes of any restaurant, bistro, snack bar, or rathskeller in Northeastern China, and these often-family-run mini-businesses sweep in the tourists, the students, the bustling work crowds to their facades — their sliding windows — to offer up what you might call fast food or takeaway but would more accurately be referred to as street food. One of these stands with an indecipherable name (one might say inscrutable, an inscrutable name) pops up from the concrete in front of a place called the U-Center in Wudaokou, and most people refer to the little noodle shop as, simply, The Jiaozi Stand, though, to be fair, dozens of other jiaozi stands exist within a half-mile radius of this one. Despite its rather plain sobriquet, the stand, with its quiet fry chef and ever-smiling, matronly shifu, has some of the best food in the neighborhood, and its specialty (you guessed it: jiaozi) can be had for the steal-of-a-price of only six kuai (for a plate of ten). Upstreet there's a McDonald's. Downstreet there's another McDonald's. KFC is a block away. A Big Mac combo is 22 kuai. A chicken sandwich with fries is 14 kuai. A plate of jiaozi is 6 six kuai. Six renminbi.

Han Dynasty, 200 AD, generations away, in the dead times, cold times, evolutionarily infinitesimally close, no one knows anyone anymore, cold mountaintops open freezing plains plateaus iced over, before us — here Zhang Zhongjing, a medical practitioner, author of Treatise on Cold Pathogenic and Miscellaneous Diseases — here he took two jiaozi and said to the cold and ultimately dead, Here, warm your ears.

Making jiaozi involves a lot of crimping, a lot of folding over and pinching and massaging. To make jiaozi you have to trap the filling and close it in, then you can boil it or steam it or deep-fry it or, if you're a Beiyu student with a hankering for the cheap, pan-fry it. Jiaozi is often dipped in vinegar or various other sauces, but it can be eaten plain, too, or with some noodles or rice, or it can be eaten as part of a full meal as a main or supporting dish. To eat jiaozi you have to get a firm grip with your chopsticks, but if you squeeze too tightly the jiaozi will be sent flying and ah, what a pain. To make jiaozi, to eat jiaozi, you need to have a steady hand, you have to be just a bit careful, but you can still take risks so long as you keep that hand steady. You can even get fancy. Just remember that the jiaozi is old, older than you, and when you're eating something that has a history spanning empires —literally spanning empires — well, something's going on, and maybe someone sat where you sit and warmed their ears, and maybe not, maybe they just kept on moving, because they didn't have time to do anything but stay alive. 

1 comment:

  1. Living in China? What an amazing opportunity! I can't wait to do my study abroad during junior year. I'm not as adventurous, though, and will only be venturing to England. Still, I can't wait! :)

    Your blog entries are thoroughly entertaining. :) Taking into account my lack of expertise in using chopsticks, personally, I would stab the jiaozi. Cop-out, I know.

    I hope you're having a blast there!