Dad’s Shandong-style Jiaozi, the best dumplings in the world

You know what they always say; daughters and their fathers have a special bond. Your dad is the first man you love, he’s your hero and will forever be the standard against which all future men must measure up against.

My boyfriends always had a tough act to follow. Unlike most traditional Chinese fathers, my dad could clean a house from top to bottom, sew hems, buttons, iron (beautifully!), build furniture, repair seemingly anything and cook. Damn, can that man cook! Naturally, when I was a little girl, to me, he was the best chef in the world. It was only as I grew older and travelled the world, eating in all sorts of places, from hole-in-the-wall joints to Michelin-starred establishments, did I realise that his palate was possibly a bit limited. He really preferred Asian cuisines, by which I mean Chinese, Korean and Japanese. He didn’t care much for Thai or Indian cuisines, citing their use of spices as being too much for him. He came to like French and Italian, but North Asian food is where his heart is.

But gosh, what he did with that palate! When we were little, he used to take us out to different restaurants on Mondays, the only day our restaurant was closed. We ate in all kinds of places and sometimes we’d get obsessed with one particular dish. Well—danged if he didn’t manage to recreate that at home! More often than not, he did recreate them really well. I remember a lemon chicken in particular that became a regular addition to his repertoire.

He was always trying to teach us more about taste and flavours. After I had a bite of something, he’d ask, “So what do you think is in it?” It was this way that I learned to discern between the subtle flavours of many ingredients. Even now, whenever I eat anything I like or am intrigued by, I am always dissecting flavour profiles in my head.

These days though, Dad tends to stick to the Chinese classics. Of these, one of my favourites has got to be jiaozi, those little fat pockets of juicy fragrant goodness. So much love and effort goes into these dumplings, from their handmade skins to the carefully seasoned and mixed filling.

Then, the assembly! This can be tedious but our family often made a little party of it, and this was even more fun if my aunts were around. One person rolled out the skins, another filled them. We would gossip and joke and laugh. The more the merrier and the more dumplings we made in the end. Whilst jiaozi are not the more refined xiaolongbao, they are, like my family, hearty, soul-warming and fairly forgiving (in that they don’t require 18 perfect folds and you can vary the filling to your taste).

The last time he came to visit, Dad filled my freezer with bags of these little gems. Now each time I pull some out, I think of him and for a little while, he’s right there with me.

Jiaozi are often eaten for the Lunar New Year because their shape harks back to ancient Chinese money—gold and silver ingots to be exact. Another reason is that the words Jiaozi literally means to sleep together and have sons, a much-desired outcome amongst the Chinese. We also eat these because they are delicious savoury mouthfuls and almost a complete meal in every bite.

So here I share my recipe for this specialty of the Shandong region, from where my dad hails. In his bid to constantly make my life easier, he suggested substituting courgette, which doesn’t require salting and squeezing dry, which the more commonly used cabbage does. Isn’t he the best?!

All photography featured in this post from Rodgers Photography


About Vivian Pei

Vivian Pei is a food writer, editor, stylist and cooking instructor who authored “Awakening the Appetite”, a cookbook by Parkway Cancer Centre with recipes especially for cancer patients and their caregivers. She speaks 5 languages, has run her own restaurant, a catering business, apprenticed in Michelin star restaurants, done the bartending thing, and now sharpens her pencils as well as her knives.