Celebrating the New Year with Potstickers!
Gyoza, known as potstickers in the west, are those delightful little packages typically filled with ground meat or seafood and vegetables, wrapped in a thinly stretched skin made of flour, water and salt. The plump little crescents overflowing with flavor are a favorite with most everyone. Gyoza are widely enjoyed in Japan and is probably one of the most familiar "foreign" items (the gyoza eaten in Japan today have their roots in Chinese cuisine). But just how and when did these savory treats show up on the menu?
While gyoza has a relatively short history in Japan, it's generally believed that, from traces of them found in ancient Chinese remains dating back to about 600 BCE, that they were already being eaten even in those early times.
While the image of gyoza as part of Chinese cuisine is very strong, and indeed the origin of gyoza is commonly thought to be Chinese, a cooked food resembling gyoza, consisting of a filling inside a flour wrapper, was discovered in the ruins of the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia approximately 3000 BCE. From the discovery of similar types of food found about the same time in various Southeast Asian countries, the Indian subcontinent, Nepal, Mongolia, etc., it has been surmised that the prototype for gyoza was transmitted from Mesopotamia via the Silk Road to many countries including China.
Now, let's dig a little deeper and delve into the history and customs surrounding these tasty tidbits!
Symbol of New Year's Wishes
In the northern regions of China, gyoza are one of the must-have New Year's foods. Entire households gather together on the last day of the year and everyone participates in making gyoza. The gyoza are then eaten at midnight to celebrate the beginning of the new year. It's also common to eat gyoza on the morning of the first day of the new year. When this tradition began is not clear, but it is recorded in documents dating back about 600 years that this was already an established social practice.
There are quite a few theories about why gyoza are eaten just as the new year begins, but there are two that seem to carry the most weight. The first says that since the crescent shape of gyoza resembles the silver ingots that were used as currency for transactions involving a good deal of money during the Qing Dynasty, eating gyoza will bring wealth to your family for the coming year. The other theory says that since the pronunciation of the characters meaning "to be blessed with children" closely resembles chaozu, which is the pronunciation of gyoza in Chinese, the eating of gyoza will help you to perpetuate your family line.
Gyoza in Japan
It's said that the first person to eat gyoza in Japan was Tokugawa Mitsukuni during the the Edo Period (1603-1868). Mitsukuni (also known as Mito Komon, who became fictionalized in the eponymous drama about a scholarly, wealthy lord, now retired, who wanders through Japan righting wrongs), was a powerful military lord, one of Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandsons, and a noted food enthusiast—a "foodie" of the Edo Period. He learned of the dish from a visiting Chinese scholar named Zhu Shun Shui. The gyoza that Mitsukuni ate, however, was boiled, and wrapped in a thick, doughy skin, in the true style of the Chinese gyoza at the time.
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), there were Chinese food establishments in Japan which served gyoza, and also cookbooks with instructions on how to make them, but at that time they were not called "gyoza," nor were they yet part of the diet of the general public. It was only relatively recently, after the end of WWII, that they became widely known as "gyoza," and took hold as a popular food eaten throughout Japan.
In China, the most common method of eating gyoza was to boil them. The gyoza were sturdy little packets, enveloped in a thickish skin, and after boiling they were dipped in sauce, and eaten as the main dish. But the gyoza that came to Japan and took hold of the people's appetites, were pan-fried with a bit of oil, and not first boiled or steamed. In Japan, gyoza, with its rich golden pan-fried fragrance, was never considered a meal in itself, but gradually came to be enjoyed as a casual side dish which accompanied the mainstay of the diet, which was, and still is, rice. These gyoza were made with wrappers that were thinner than the Chinese ones, and with a larger amount of filling; garlic, not used in China, was included, and other flavor adjustments catering to the Japanese sense of taste and rice-based diet were implemented, such as the blending of soy sauce based dipping sauce with rice vinegar and a nice splash of chili oil. Japan's incarnation of gyoza was now a perfect as side dish, and also as a snack to accompany a nice, cold beer!
Types of Gyoza
Suigyoza (boiled gyoza)
The type of gyoza that has been around the longest in China is suigyoza, or boiled gyoza. Ground meat and seasonal vegetables are enfolded in a thickish, soft and springy wrapper made of wheat or rice flour (or a combination of both) and cooked in boiling water or lightly flavored broth. They are either eaten as is, or dipped in a bit of soy sauce, seasoned vinegar, or chili oil. Since no oil is incorporated in the cooking process, the simple, light taste of the ingredients can be enjoyed.
Yakigyoza (pan-fried gyoza)
These are the most common type of gyoza in Japan, and they are immensely popular. Correctly speaking, however, they are pan-fried and steamed. The gyoza are first pan-fried so the bottoms become brown and crispy. Water is then added, and a lid is placed tightly over the pan to hold in the steam, which finishes the cooking process. The textural contrast of the crispy bottoms, soft tops, and juicy fillings is what makes these gyoza irresistible! Eat them steaming hot with dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice vinegar and chili oil.
Mushigyoza (steamed gyoza)
In a steamer, steam the gyoza. The steam from the boiling water gently cooks the gyoza to completion, with little danger of the gyoza losing their shape due to too much heat, and leaving them tender and plump. These dainty little savory pillows are made with a variety of ingredients, and are often enjoyed as dim sum.
Agegyoza (deep-fried gyoza)
Fried in oil at high temperature, these gyoza are known for their delightful fried aroma and all-over crispy and crunchy texture. Popular as appetizers or party hors d'oeuvres, they are great to nibble on while sipping your drink! Delicious when dipped in sweet and sour sauce, or hot sauce.
How about having your friends over for a gyoza making party? Gyoza wrappers and ingredients galore are right at your fingertips at Marukai markets! If you feel like enjoying some gyoza without actually having to make them, Marukai comes to the rescue with a great selection of convenient and delicious frozen gyoza. Whatever you need to make your own very special gyoza dinner tonight, Marukai has it all!