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New Year food worldwide: Fortune telling with jiaozi dumplings in north China

Emiko Onaka, left, and one of the cooks at her Chinese restaurant, stand before a New Year's decoration that says "fortune" that her husband bought in China, in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2006. (Mainichi/Eri Misono)

FUKUCHIYAMA, Kyoto -- In China, there is a saying, "Nothing betters your mood like sleep or dumplings," and in the northern part of the country, handmade boiled dumplings are essential for telling your fortune and bringing in the Lunar New Year.

Dumpling filling is wrapped in skins in Fukuchi, Kyoto Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2006. (Mainichi/Eri Misono)

This year, Chinese New Year, based on the lunar calendar, falls in early February, and the Mainichi Shimbun visited the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, in western Japan. Born in the northern Chinese city of Harbin, Emiko Onaka, 57, says that gyoza dumplings -- jiaozi in Mandarin Chinese -- are her favorite food, and she has been making them since she was young.

"At around 2 years old, you can line up gyoza that have been made by others," she said. "By age 8 or 9, I was making them myself."

Onaka's mother was one of the Japanese children that were left not repatriated in China after the withdrawal of Japanese forces and immigrants at the close of World War II. Emiko and her family returned to Japan in 1979. Of her memories of Lunar New Year, Onaka recalled, "We would eat luxurious dishes and snacks, have new clothing made for us and set off fireworks to celebrate. I really enjoyed it."

Boiled gyoza, foreground, and sweet steamed buns, the one on the left decorated with jujube fruit, made at Onaka's restaurant are seen in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2006. (Mainichi/Eri Misono)

One of her cooks, 44, who arrived in Japan three years earlier, added, "You eat a lot of gyoza, but there are coins and other things hidden inside, and it is said if you end up with one of them, it is good luck. I always looked forward to New Year."

Even for New Year's in Japan, Onaka prepares gyoza. On New Year's Eve, she invites her cooks who have come from China to work and others to her house, and when the clock strikes midnight, everyone says, "Happy New Year!" and she brings out a lot of boiled gyoza to the dinner table. Surrounded by the dumplings, the party celebrates the new year along with beer and the Chinese distilled liquor Maotai. Sweet steamed buns beloved by children are also decorated with jujube fruit, peanuts, candy, apples and other delights.

Immaculately wrapped gyoza are lined up in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2006. (Mainichi/Eri Misono)

"If they get cold, if you just fry them up, they are still delicious," Emiko added of the boiled dumplings, the skins of which get satisfyingly crunchy with some hot oil. Onaka usually closes her restaurant on Jan. 1, but opens for business again from Jan. 2, starting her year with a bang.

According to Konan University professor Ko Kintei, who specializes in Chinese-Japanese comparative culture, in China's cold northern regions, dishes using weather-resistant wheat and kaoliang, a variety of sorghum, were developed, and jiaozi dumplings were born. The main variety was boiled suijiaozi, and unlike Japan where gyoza are a side dish, these dumplings were the main course. The word jiaozi shares a sound with the phrase for a change in year, and also has the same pronunciation as the world for conceiving a child, carrying the meaning of praying for the prosperity of children and grandchildren.

As for the filling, along with chicken, pork, beef, fish, Chinese cabbage, Chinese chives, mustard spinach and just about anything goes. Salt is added to taste to the mixture, and the finished products are eaten dipped in vinegar or sauce with red chili peppers. Along with coins, some are also made with peanuts or candy inside and are used to tell someone's fortune for the coming year. Sweet finds inside the dumplings spell happiness, while coins signal coming into money, and peanuts, which are called "longevity nuts" in China symbolize good health. But just finding any of the hidden items is considered lucky.

An example of homemade Lunar New Year's cuisine, where more than 10 dishes are said to be the norm, are seen in China's northernmost Heilongjiang province in 2015, in this photo provided by Ayu Okada.

"Dividing up the work of making the skins and filling them to make the dumplings makes it more fun for everyone," said Ko. "Even if you are meeting someone for the first time, if you talk to them while your hands are busy working to make the food, then you can relax and have a natural conversation. The fact that the ingredients aren't expensive is also a nice plus."

During Lunar New Year, people also treat themselves to new clothing and shoes to bring in the year fresh. The holiday spreads over several days, and those living far from home return to visit their family and enjoy food and drinks.

"During Lunar New Year, even students with bad grades or adults not getting results with their work can turn a new leaf and decide to leave the past behind and make a fresh start," Ko added. When it comes to forgetting the previous year's hardships and making a new start, New Year in Japan and China is not that different.

(Japanese original by Eri Misonou, Osaka Cultural News Department)

*Main ingredients for suijiaozi boiled dumplings (serves six people): 1 kilogram wheat flour; water as needed; 1 kilogram ground pork; 1 to 2 stalks of Chinese chives; half of a green onion; 2 eggs; Part A (soy sauce, salt, pepper, sesame oil, ground ginger, flavor enhancer and Chinese soup stock to taste); Part B (soy sauce, vinegar, ground garlic, sesame oil to taste)

1. Put the flour into a bowl, and while gradually adding water, strongly knead the dough. Let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, knead again and then let it rest for an additional 15 minutes.

2. Mix Part A with the ground pork, minced Chinese chives and green onions and eggs to make the filling.

3. Roll the dough into a cylinder with a roughly 3-centimeter diameter, and cut off pieces around 2 centimeters long. Use a rolling pin to stretch the cut pieces of dough into a round shape.

4. Wrap the filling in the skins from 3.

5. Boil water in a pot, place the dumplings inside and take them out after 5 minutes.

6. Mix together Part B, and use it as a sauce.

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