No wonder people like them; the name means “money.”
Dumplings and steamed buns have long been a popular method of cooking and storing meat and savory ingredients. Like their cousin bao, jiaozi can incorporate a great variety of fillings, can be made ahead of time and frozen, and can be cooked by steaming, boiling, and frying.
Jiaozi were long associated with winter and the Chinese New Year. Folk tales dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty (late 900s - early 1100s CE) say that a doctor created this food to treat frostbitten ears.
The name comes from the western city Chengdu, where the merchants and traders had recently introduced an amazing innovation: paper money. No longer did you have to carry around the heavy horn-shaped gold or silver ingots called “yuan bao,” as the paper bills signified you did own them. You could exchange the bills for ingots at another innovation: the bank. The Chengdu merchants called their paper money “jiao zi” using the character meaning ‘horn’ to refer to the shape of the yuan bao ingots. Eventually the use of jiao zi bills became so common that all money was called by that name. When the dumplings of the same horn-shape were introduced, it was natural to call them ‘money’ too.
(And even today, the “small change” you receive in China is called “jiao.” “Yuan,” in Mandarin ["Won" in Korean; "Yen" in Japanese] is still a word that means currency.)
With the New Year’s celebration of good fortune and wishes for wealth being a winter holiday, the food that’s literally synonymous with money of course became the favorite dish to serve at big family dinners in the northern provinces.
Special fillings are added to jiaozi during New Year’s to express wishes for family and guests: dates and chestnuts to have many sons; peanuts for long life. And some families will hide a coin in the filling of one dumpling out of a whole batch; who finds the coin will have great luck for the entire year.
As a versatile, inexpensive, easy-to-prepare, easy-to-store food, jiaozi spread across Asia and is now enjoyed year-round for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can find them at your local Asian grocery store as jiaozi, potstickers, or gyoza (the Japanese reading of the characters.) Many styles are available in the frozen foods section - chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp, scallion / leek, tofu, and more.
Making your own jiaozi is a simple process; the dough for the skin is just flour, salt,and water; and you can use almost any filling you can imagine. Hand crimping the edges does take practice, but there are gadgets to simplify that step. If you’re not cooking them right away, freeze them - they’ll keep for months in an airtight zip bag.
Preparation is easy - because there are several ways to cook jiaozi:
Boiling (about 10 minutes from frozen; especially good in a soup stock)
Steaming (about 8-10 minutes from frozen, using a bamboo steamer. Line each level in the steamer with wax paper to prevent sticking.)
Pan-frying (in a shallow pan with light oil, keeping the flat side down for about 1-2 minutes to get a crisp skin. Then, add a little water and steam for just 2-3 minutes to make the other sides chewy.)
Deep-fried (in very hot oil - and plenty of room to keep from getting splattered. Should take 3-4 minutes; remove just as the skins start to turn brown. More jiaozi in the oil will take longer to cook.)