Dispatches from Abroad: The Dumpling Feast

I knew I needed some photos of dumplings, and a dumpling extravaganza at the De Fa Chang (aka Da Fa Zheng) restaurant in between the Two Towers of Xi’an (which could be a title for an updated Tolkein novel) not only provided many photogenic opportunities but also enough food to set me on the path to becoming a dumpling myself.

The restaurant is located almost exactly mid-way between Xi’an’s landmark Bell Tower (which tolled the morning) and Drum Tower (which tolled the evening), but neither can be seen once inside. Which was fine, since almost all my attention was focused on the feast, the occasion for which was the presentation to me by (right to left) Professors An Zhisheng, Zhou Weijian, and Chen Yi-ping of my official certificate for my Fellowship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


I’ll have more on the two towers later this week. But back to the dumplings. We started off with a variety of non-dumpling appetizers, including (clockwise from top left) a fresh squash salad, rice noodles and beef, zucchini and shrimp, roasted fish, steamed bitter melon, and sauteed mushrooms (click on individual images to see larger versions).

Then the dumplings started to appear. Although in English they’re all referred to as “dumplings”, there are many types of jiao zi (饺子; a.k.a. dim sum), the most important distinction being whether they were boiled or steamed. The former can be dipped in dipping sauce, the latter never (which reminded me of one of the key rules of the Passover seder).

It’s hard to know where to start, and since the platters got placed at random on the table’s rotating lazy susan, it probably doesn’t matter.

The first three to arrive were in soup (filled with pork), fried (filled with a meat-vegetable mixture), and boiled (filled with beef). These were all dip-able (click on individual images to see larger versions).

These were followed in fairly short order by the steamed jiao zi, which were especially notable for their self-referential shapes. Edward Tufte would, I’m sure, be proud of these ducks!1

DaFaZheng-duck+ celery dumplings-20160822-AME-184931

The duck-shaped ones are, you guessed it, filled with duck. And it takes little imagination to determine with what the celery-shaped ones are filled. Or the chicken-shaped ones:

DaFaZheng-chicken dumplings-20160822-AME-190835

But the most interestingly shaped ones were these:

DaFaZheng-lotus dumplings-20160822-AME-183418

The lotus-root shaped ones were formed to have 13 pockets, one for each Chinese dynasty. Underneath the pores was a nondescript filling of ground meat (probably pork). The four-fold ones filled with eggs and vegetables symbolized different stages of one’s life: education, marriage, wealth, and long life.

And there were still more to come.

These walnut-shaped dumplings, filled with chopped walnuts and dried fruit, arrived about mid-way through the meal.

DaFaZheng-walnut dumplings-20160822-AME-185825

Dessert, I thought cheerfully, meant the meal was coming to a close and I wouldn’t be too full. But alas, Professor Zhou informed me that dessert is rare at a Chinese meal, so the sweets can come at any time. An in fact, the walnuts only marked the mid-point.of the dumplings. Three more platters arrived shortly after the walnuts (click on individual images to see larger versions).

To the left are steamed jiao zi filled with fish or a mixture of leeks and meat. In the center are mushroom jiao zi (center) and shrimp jiao zi (around the outside). And since we hadn’t dipped our jiao zi in a while, we got another plateful of boiled beef jiao zi (right).

Now thoroughly stuffed (in addition to the three IEE professors and myself, there were only two other post-docs at this repast), we were treated to the hot pot of pearl dumplings.

DaFaZheng-princess dumplings-20160822-AME-191231


These little tiny chicken-filled jiao zi, cooked at the table in and served together with a Chrysanthemum broth, recall a Qing-dynasty story of the Empress Cixi who asked for a new variety of jiao zi. The number of dumplings that arrive in one’s soup bowl determine one’s future. I got two: double happiness!

Finally, after a few more spins of the lazy susan and exhortations to consider the starving children in America and not waste good food, we finished up with mushroom soup and watermelon (click on individual images to see larger versions).

Finally, these desserts were for real!

1The noted statisician, sculptor, author, and publisher Edward Tufte wrote about “ducks”— self-referential graphics and self-referential buildings—in his classic book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press, 1983)

3 thoughts on “Dispatches from Abroad: The Dumpling Feast

  1. This is awesome. I forwarded to a foodie friend, jane Kaufman who is pursing culinary arts studies.


    Edie Cherkas Ellin
    Director of Administration | Harvard Forest | Faculty of Arts and Sciences | Harvard University
    324 North Main Street, Petersham MA 01366 | harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu
    Direct 978-756-6124 | Main 978-724-3302 | ellin@fas.harvard.edu


  2. This has to be the largest variety of dumplings I’ve ever seen! And most of them are so pretty and dainty! 🙂


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