Frozen ears: The story of gyozas

Some simple ingredients on their way to becoming a gyoza herb mash — Pictures by Chris Chan
Some simple ingredients on their way to becoming a gyoza herb mash — Pictures by Chris Chan

LONDON, March 24 — One would always have suspected that the ubiquitous Japanese gyoza originated from China – and one would be completely right, unlike most economists.

The origins of the gyoza are said to stem from the treatments invented by Zhang Zhongjing (150 – 219 AD), a Han Dynasty physician born in Nanyang.

One of his inventions was the jiaozi (though it was originally called “tender ears”) and they were used to treat frostbitten ears during the freezing winters. How it got from being a treatment for cold ears to becoming one of the main dishes eaten at Chinese New Year festivals these days will probably always remain a mystery – but whoever first decided to unwrap a jiaozi from someone’s blue and purple ear and pop it into his mouth may be considered nowadays as a Chinese hero.

The jiaozi entered Japan and finally became the popular staple dish called gyoza around the time of the Second World War.

It seems that Edo samurai were also chomping on earlier versions of the gyoza in the 17th century but oddly, it needed a world war to get the general Japanese population to really like the stuff.

Fresh meat and raw prawns are minced, then combined with hand-squeezed cabbage and herb mash to make up the gyoza filling
Fresh meat and raw prawns are minced, then combined with hand-squeezed cabbage and herb mash to make up the gyoza filling

Now they like it so much that they have places like the Naniwa Gyoza Stadium in Osaka, a theme park dedicated to the gyoza. The Japanese have also invented rather icky variations such as the “gyoza dog”, a huge gyoza sized as large as a hot dog and guaranteed to leak all over your shirt.

Americans now also love gyozas, and call them “Japanese potstickers” (although I hate to say this but if a gyoza gets glued in the pot while cooking, then generally it isn’t very good news).

Gyozas are eaten at any time of the day, usually with a vinegar-based dipping sauce. I sometimes make them at home for fun, simply because they are such interesting and delicious snacks.

And they are so easy to make that a few snacks often quickly turn into a serious meal for friends and family.

Anyway, now that you are slightly more familiar with the gyoza, I would like to reveal that there is actually no set recipe for making gyozas – it’s more the uncomplicated, beguiling cooking technique that make them rather special, at least for me.

As I am sort of a cooking simpleton, I usually start by making three basic bowls of ingredients. The first bowl is the meat paste, usually finely chopped chicken (or any other slightly fatty meats you fancy - but not turkey), mixed with coarsely chopped fresh prawns, and then salt and ground pepper (black or white) blended well in.

The second bowl is the herb paste, a hand or machine-chopped fine mash of Japanese chives, ginger, garlic and shallots. If you cannot get Japanese chives, then Chinese chives are fine or even spring onions will do.

The last bowl needs to be big as you will put in there finely shredded Chinese cabbage (or ordinary cabbage if preferred) – on which you will sprinkle quite a bit of salt, enough to make a light layer on top. Then use your hands to mix the salt into the cabbage and sprinkle another lighter layer of salt on top. Leave alone for at least 30 minutes.

Note that I did not specify any quantities – that’s because you can make those decisions. If you want meaty savoury gyozas, then use more meat and/or prawns. Herby gyozas require more of the herb mash and if you like more vegetables or texture, just shred more cabbage – it’s really that simple.

The gyoza wrappers, which are always round, can be bought in supermarkets or if unavailable, then you can even use wonton skins, preferably the round ones.

Fried for 2 minutes, then steamed in the same pan – and the result is perfect home-made gyozas!
Fried for 2 minutes, then steamed in the same pan – and the result is perfect home-made gyozas!

Before getting to filling in the gyozas, you have a couple of simple preparation steps, starting with the cabbage, which should have exuded a lot of water after the 30-minute wait.

Grab a bunch of the cabbage and squeeze as hard as you can over a sink to compress out as much of the water in the cabbage as possible. If necessary, roll the cabbage around in the hand and squeeze again until you have only dry cabbage.

Repeat until all the cabbage has been pressed – when ready, throw the dried cabbage into the meat mixture, add in the herb mash and blend everything together well to make the gyoza filling.

Now comes the fun part of actually assembling the gyozas, which you can (and should) do with your family or friends. It’s odd but people always seem to have pretty good chats when doing this – it doesn’t matter if the gyozas aren’t perfect as the results are always so enjoyable and all mistakes are just funny and giggly.

One starts by placing a gyoza skin on the flattened fingers of the left hand. Scoop a teaspoon of gyoza filling into the centre of the skin. Dip the index finger of the right hand into a little bowl of water and run it around the rim of half the gyoza skin.

Fold the other side over the wetted rim and pinch a few times to seal the gyoza. It’s optional, but you can also gently fold and pleat the ridged part of the gyoza to make it look more “authentic”. Place on a tray and press the gyoza down gently to make sure it has a flat base – this is a little important as you will see later.

To cook the gyozas, it’s best to use a flat non-stick frying pan with a lid that seals well. Heat the pan on medium high and scatter in around two teaspoons of sesame seed oil.

Just before the oil starts to smoke, gently place some gyozas in the pan, flattened base downwards, leaving around 1 cm space between them. The number you can squeeze in depends on the size of the pan and can be expressed very simply as N = p / ((a+0.5)(b+0.5)) where p = π x ((pan diameter in cm)/2)2, a = length of gyoza and b = width of gyoza in cm. Or just use your common sense. Just don’t pack them in too tightly as they will stick.

Cover the pan and cook on medium to high heat for two minutes. In the meantime, get a small mug (preferably with a handle) and fill in a third with plain water. After two minutes, open the lid of the pan and quickly splash in the water from the mug around the inside of the pan and close the lid again as quickly as possible.

Spare a little time in the kitchen making these delicious gyozas that will “wow” your family and friends
Spare a little time in the kitchen making these delicious gyozas that will “wow” your family and friends

If you have a glass lid, then cook until you can see that the water has evaporated, else cook for three minutes and then check every minute until you can see that the water has evaporated and there is left only a thin layer of sesame seed oil in the pan. Pick out the gyozas with chopsticks and serve on plates.

For the dipping sauce, use a sharp knife to shred finely some peeled ginger into a sauce made up very simply as follows: two tablespoons each of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and Japanese sweet mirin. Then pop in one tablespoon of sesame seed oil and stir.

You can also add in finely chopped birds’ eye chillies as well. If you don’t have mirin, then sweeten up with some Shao Xing rice wine with sugar and use that instead. The measures mentioned are just to give you the proportions for the sauce so multiply the spoonfuls up or down as you wish for more or less dipping.

Obviously, the only thing left to do now is splash the gyozas in the dipping sauce and crack a few jokes with your fellow cooks while thoroughly enjoying yourselves eating something originally designed as a cure for frozen ears.

Please note that the base gyoza recipe was taught to me by that irrepressible cooking talent and recipe consultant, Rohani Jelani, who said that she had learnt it originally from a Japanese girl in Canada!

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 23, 2014.

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