Mutton Dumplings for Winter Solstice —by Jinny Batterson
The first time we spent the winter solstice in China, we were in far western Xinjiang in northwestern China. By December, it was really cold in our small town of Ala’er. The temperature in the central ground floor area of the campus market near our apartment block was often at or near freezing. All fall, multiple small vendors had arranged their fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats for sale on trestle tables in this large open area. There was a wide doorless entryway at one end of the cement-floored market, and the roof, though covered, was more than two stories up. As winter approached, a few of the fresh market vendors persevered, lighting small fires between market stalls to help keep their produce from damage, covering their products with quilts and blankets at night. Most vendors, though, just gave up for the winter. In contrast, the restaurants along the edges of the market nearly all stayed open. Most were only big enough for a few tables, with a kitchen at the back—glassed-in single story enclosures with the sort of plastic flap doors that drop back into place once someone goes through them. When the heat in our apartment was dicey, even if we had enough food on hand to cook at home, we’d sometimes head for an evening meal at a market restaurant just to stay warm. Many of the restaurants specialized in dumplings and dumpling soup. Both steamy variations got more appealing as the weather got colder.
Early on December 22, the day of that year’s winter solstice, our Foreign Affairs Officer, Mr. Ma, brought a surprise gift to our apartment: two large bags of frozen mutton dumplings, to be stored in our smallish freezer, then reheated batch by batch for as many meals as we could make of them. He explained in somewhat halting English that we should boil some of the dumplings that evening, and also eat our fill of the dumplings throughout the winter to help keep warm and to protect our ears from freezing. He said that since the dumplings were shaped roughly like ears, people had come to believe that eating dumplings would help prevent chilblains or frostbite on one’s ears. As it happened, we didn’t try our dumplings until a bit later in the winter because that evening, the head of the English department invited us out to a huge meal of mutton hot pot.
Since our arrival in Ala’er several months earlier, we’d found a number of local restaurants that specialized in mutton dishes. We’d sampled lots of mutton kebabs and several varieties of mutton stews, sometimes invited by students or in-town friends, other times on explorations of our own. Our experience in Xinjiang was the first time in our China travels up to then when we were keenly aware of dietary differences between Han Chinese and some of China’s other ethnic groups. Much of the local Xinjiang population is Moslem. Many of the inhabitants of rural Xinjiang are sheep-herding pastoralists of the Uyghur nationality, one of 55 non-Han groups officially recognized in China. Moslems do not eat pork, which plays a substantial role in the traditional Han diet. Han and Uyghur restaurants in Ala’er were distinct. At the Uyghur restaurants, the menus were always pork-free. A few Han students and faculty (including the chair of the English department) would occasionally eat at a Uyghur restaurant. The reverse never seemed to be true.
Some of the less tolerant Han students and school officials, including the Foreign Affairs Officer, looked askance at our eclectic restaurant choices. So a gift of mutton dumplings from someone who did not seem to us to be very sympathetic toward Uyghurs seemed a little odd. Why not pork dumplings? We did not ask, chalking it up to just one more local Xinjiang custom that we might never understand.
Two years later, after a year’s interval back in the U.S., we were again teaching in China as the winter solstice approached. This time we were in a small city in Sichuan province where there were almost no Uyghurs—the proportion of Han Chinese was likely above the national average of over 90 percent. It was quite rare to find a mutton dish on any restaurant menu, and we never saw mutton for sale at any of the local markets near us. So it was a surprise when our Foreign Affairs Officer at this second school invited us out for mutton dumplings on the winter solstice. When I did some later research, I found that mutton is one of the meats most closely associated with “yang,” or warming energy, in Chinese medicine. An early Chinese physician is said to have cured peasants in his village from winter chills with a hearty soup laced with mutton dumplings. In much of northern China, mutton dumplings or mutton hot pot are traditional dishes at the winter solstice. I’m not sure how much truth there is to the legend of the physician’s cure. My Western mindset has not yet fully absorbed the concept of food as medicine. However, any excuse to eat dumplings, especially mutton ones, in cold weather, is fine by me.