DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this week, we've been talking about dumplings. Perhaps no country has a longer history or greater variety than China. Dumplings come in all shapes and with every imaginable filling. They range from a humble family meal to elaborate works of culinary art.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to Xi'an, the ancient imperial capital of China, to witness a lavish celebration of dumpling culture: The All-Dumpling Banquet.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We're in the kitchen of the Defachang Restaurant and with me is the restaurant's master dumpling maker, Chef Ma Shunli. She's supervising other chefs as they put meat and vegetables fillings in wheat flour wrappers.
Now I'm looking in one of the steamers and it has done little dumplings in a V-shaped formation, like a flock of ducklings.
MA SHUNLI: (Through Translator) This one has roast duck filling. 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.
KUHN: Just for the record, these are all jiaozi, the most common type of dumpling in North China. Now, this dumpling here is staring right at me with eyes made of bits of egg yolk and black sesame seeds for pupils - looks just like a frog, I wonder what fillings in that one.
Chef Ma is now showing us the menus for 15 All-Dumpling Banquets at different prices, and they change according to the 24-solar terms of the Chinese calendar.
MA: (Through Translator) During each of the solar terms, certain vegetables are at their freshest and most nutritious. We call these the 24-Solar-Term Dumplings.
KUHN: In other words, about every two weeks, Chef Ma serves up a new menu of cosmically-coordinated dumplings.
When the Defachang Restaurant opened more than 70 years ago, it only had one kind of dumpling. Now it makes 318 varieties - a world record. Chef Ma says she joined the restaurant as a teenager and was apprenticed to the restaurants master dumpling maker. Now she has a crew of young dumpling disciples herself, and she's obviously very proud of them.
MA: (Through Translator) We must not lose the craftsmanship and the traditions that have been left to us since ancient times. We have to carry those traditions forward and innovate based on them.
KUHN: OK, so these dumplings are very artistic. But how do they taste? Let's head to the dining room to find out. Now, as Chef Monson said, these dumplings are just so exquisite you almost can't bear to eat them. Well, it's come time for me to eat the frog.
Mmm, unexpectedly delicious.
In recent decades, big changes have swept across this vast empire of self-contained food units. Zhao Jianmin is a folk culture expert in the eastern Jinan city. He 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.
ZHAO JIANMIN: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: In my heart, he says, I treat dumplings with a traditional sense of devotion, of anticipation and appreciation for their cultural content.
These days, you can just grab a bag of frozen out of the freezer and cook them up in minutes. Chef Ma Shunli admits that's true, but she optimistically hopes that every day brings a special and happy occasion, worthy of celebrating with a dumpling banquet.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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GREENE: Glad you got to taste those, Anthony. For more on Chinese dumplings, for photos of Chinese dumplings, you can visit NPR's food blog, The Salt.
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