A Flock of Dumpling Ducklings: What's inside? Roasted Beijing duck, of course.
A Flock of Dumpling Ducklings: What's inside? Roasted Beijing duck, of course. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
All week, we've been talking about dumplings — from tortellini's sensual origins in Italy to kubbeh's tasty variations in Israel.
But perhaps no country has a longer history or greater variety of dumplings than China. Dumplings come in all shapes and with every imaginable filling. They are served at everything from a humble family meal to elaborate works of culinary art.
At the high end of the scale is the Defachang restaurant in northwest China's Xi'an city.
It is famous for serving up 318 varieties of dumplings — a world record.
Dumpling Master: Chef Ma Shunli has been preparing dumplings at the Defachang restaurant since she was teenager.
Dumpling Master: Chef Ma Shunli has been preparing dumplings at the Defachang restaurant since she was teenager. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Defachang opened in 1936 as a simple eatery offering just one kind of jiaozi, the most common boiled dumpling served in north China.
By the late 1970s, the restaurant had developed all-dumpling banquets. Defachang's flagship restaurant is right at the center of old Xi'an. The first floor serves northwestern style dumplings and noodles to customers looking for a quick, simple meal.The second floor serves the dumpling banquets in a large hall, often filled with tour groups. The third floor has private rooms for the "power dumpling" business lunch crowd.
There's a special kitchen used just for preparing the dumpling banquets. The restaurant's master dumpling maker, chef Ma Shunli, supervises other chefs there as they put meat and vegetable fillings in wheat flour wrappings.
In one steamer, 10 little dumplings are arranged in a V-shaped formation, like a flock of ducklings. "This one has roast duck filling," Ma explains. "It's made with Beijing roast duck, and it's in the shape of a little duck. So it's filled with duck meat, and it's duck-shaped."
Another dumpling stares right up at me from its steamer with eyes made of bits of egg yolk and black sesame seeds for pupils. Ma tells me there is bullfrog meat inside.
A Smorgasbord: Defachang restaurant prepares 318 different dumplings. Often the shape offers a clue to what's inside. For instance, that green frog is stuffed with bullfrog meat.
A Smorgasbord: Defachang restaurant prepares 318 different dumplings. Often the shape offers a clue to what's inside. For instance, that green frog is stuffed with bullfrog meat. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
On the wall are lists of seasonal menus. There are 15 all-dumpling banquets at different prices. The most expensive costs nearly $1,000 for a table of 10 people. The menus change according to the 24 solar terms of the traditional Chinese calendar.
"During each of the solar terms," Ma says, "certain vegetables are at their freshest and most nutritious. We call these the 24-solar-term dumplings."
In other words, about every two weeks, Ma serves up a new menu of cosmically coordinated dumplings. Right now, she says, wild mushrooms and lotus roots are in season.
The Lotus Dumpling: Stuffed with pork and lotus root, this dumpling has 13 holes on the top, just like the lotus seedpod.
The Lotus Dumpling: Stuffed with pork and lotus root, this dumpling has 13 holes on the top, just like the lotus seedpod. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
One of the restaurant's most famous products is a dumpling dubbed the "Lotus Seedpod Rising Above The Water." It's stuffed with pork and lotus root, and like the seedpod, it has 13 holes on its top. Ma says this number of holes also symbolizes the 13 imperial dynasties that have made Xi'an their capital.
Chef Ma says she joined the restaurant as a teenager and was apprenticed to the restaurant's master dumpling maker.
Now she has a crew of young dumpling disciples herself, and she's obviously very proud of them. "We must not lose the craftsmanship and the traditions that have been left to us since ancient times," she says adamantly. "We have to carry those traditions forward and innovate based on them."
But in recent decades, big changes have swept across this vast dumpling empire in China.
Zhao Jianmin, a folk culture expert in the eastern city of Jinan, points out that traditionally, dumplings were reserved for the most special, festive occasions of the year. They were associated with ringing in the Chinese New Year, with weddings and special guests. They symbolized wealth, fortune and family.
"In my heart," he says, "I treat dumplings with a traditional sense of devotion, of anticipation, and appreciation for their cultural content."
These days, to many urban Chinese, dumplings are no longer special. They're just another choice at mealtime, along with hamburgers, pizza and sushi. Now you can just grab a bag of frozen ones out of the freezer and cook them up in minutes.
Chef Ma admits that's true, but she optimistically hopes that every day brings a special and happy occasion, worthy of celebrating with a dumpling banquet.