Dumplings are popular all over the world. The Italians have ravioli and tortellini; the Polish have pierogi; the Japanese have gyoza; the South Americans have empanadas and the Indians have samosas. In fact, there are dozens of delicious dumplings from almost every cuisine on Earth.
In this article we’re going to focus on traditional Chinese dumplings, known as jiaozi, which can be boiled, steamed, deep fried or shallow-fried. We’ll explain how they make dumplings in a factory but first, we’ll give you background to the world of dumplings which is as rich and varied as their size, shape and fillings.
A Short History of Dumplings
Since most cultures around the world seem to have developed their own versions of dumplings, the history of this humble food has many starting points.
What we do know, or at least the story that is most widely accepted among food historians, is that the traditional Chinese dumpling was invented during the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 AD) by a man named Zhang Zhongjing, one of the most renowned physicians of his age.
Returning home to his village one particularly cold winter, he noticed that due to a lack of warm clothes and sufficient food, many of the villagers were suffering from frostbite, particularly around the tops of their ears.
In an attempt to alleviate their suffering, he cooked up a batch of lamb, vegetables, medicinal herbs and spices, wrapped the mixture in dough and steamed the small parcels which became affectionately known as ‘little ears’. Even today, this is how dumplings are made. There’s no record of these dumplings curing frostbite, but the method took off and has barely changed for 1,800 years.
The first recipe for dumplings is believed to have appeared in a Roman cookbook called Apicius. Compiled in or around the fifth century AD, it took another thousand years for the word ‘dumpling’ to appear in a written text.
Whether to alleviate the pain of a brutal winter or, more practically, to make use of leftover meat, fish and vegetables, dumplings, in all their wonderful delicious forms, have permeated global cuisine. So, without further ado, here’s how dumplings are manufactured.
How Dumplings are Produced Today
As we’ve said, dumplings come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and fillings but one of the most popular in China is dumplings filled with shrimp and pork.
The raw ingredients arrive at the processing plant and the first thing the food technicians do is prepare the shrimp, or as they are called in the UK, prawns. They’re peeled, de-veined, cleaned and sorted for size. At the same time they’re checked for quality and freshness. On average, a 30-person team can prepare around 10,000 shrimp an hour!
At another station, the pork mixture is prepared. Generally speaking the pork meat will be finely minced and mixed with salt, pepper and a variety of herbs and spices. This is the beginning of the process of how they make dumplings in a factory.
The dough is a very simple recipe of flour and water at a ratio of 2:1. It’s mixed in a large steel bowl with a dough hook. When it’s the perfect consistency – soft and elastic – it’s sent to be strengthened. Workers knead the dough and roll out lengths into long, thin sausage shapes. At the next station, experienced food technicians tear 8g chunks off each roll. These are collected and flattened by hand into a piece of dough slightly larger and thicker than a £2 coin.
Making The Wrappers
This is perhaps the most important element of how dumplings are made. There are lots of different styles of dumplings, and here we’ll describe how to make shao mai, small, pleated parcels which are open-ended at the top.
The initial step in the process of how dumplings are manufactured see the dough discs sprinkled with flour to stop them sticking together. The next stage is to use traditional tools – and an exceptional level of ambidextrous skill – to transform each disc into a wrapper.
First, in perfect coordination, the worker rolls the dough with a small rolling pin with his right hand while his left hand rotates the dough until it’s a wafer-thin wrapper around 15cm in diameter. Next, a second worker uses another type of traditional rolling pin to pleat the edges of the wrapper.
At the filling station, another worker adds a very precise amount of the pork mix into the wrapper. It’s then topped with a shrimp and tightened by hand in a single movement to its final shape.
The Final Product
The raw dumplings are either boxed up and delivered to restaurants the same day, or they’re frozen and packed for supermarkets and specialist shops. This is the final step in the process of how dumplings are produced in factories.