a favorite excerpt from Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days

#7 in an eclectic collection of notable noshes to whet your appetite and brighten your day.

Line drawings from the book.

So, as I was reading and drooling through Dumpling Days, I came to the part when Pacy’s cousin Clifford explains how you can tell wontons from dumplings — dumplings are shaped like ears.

He tells the story of a very famous Chinese doctor who supposedly invented dumpling soup. Ah! I had never heard this story before and found it not only fascinating, but quite uncanny, as a character in my picture book, Dumpling Soup, thinks dumplings look like elephant ears. Little did I realize the very first “ears” had great medicinal benefits. Totally cool!



Once there was a famous doctor, Zhang Zhongjing, who lived by the river in a cold part of China. He treated and cured many things, but in the winter, the things he treated most were people’s ears! That sounds strange, I know, but where he lived in China, the winters were particularly cold. The icy wind whipped and burned any exposed skin.

It was so cold that when a villager joked that his breath froze into pieces of ice in the air, all believed him because even if the cold did not freeze one’s breath, it really did freeze people’s ears. The doctor was kept busy during the winters treating frostbitten ears. He knew that people with frostbite needed warmth to heal, so he began to make a remedy that would warm peoples’ insides as well as their outsides. He cooked meat with warming herbs and finely chopped it. Then he wrapped it in thinly rolled dough and boiled the pieces in soup with more herbs. When the mixture was finished, he called it “soup that takes away the cold,” or “qu han jiao er tang.” He then served it to his frostbitten patients, who not only healed quickly, but enjoyed the soup so much that they continued to eat it.

People made the soup at home, usually eating it in the winter. They say the dumpling is the shape it is because it is made to resemble an ear, in honor of Doctor Zhongjing’s treatment of people’s frostbitten ears. The name of the soup, qu han jiao er tang, was shortened to jiao er tang, and the dumplings were eventually called jiaozi.

~ from “Story of Dumpling Soup,” Dumpling Days by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2012), page 119.


Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 AD) was an eminent physician in the Han Dynasty and is extremely well known in modern Chinese medicine.

Take two ears and call me in the morning.

He wrote China’s first book (actually 16 volumes worth), combining medical theory with his own experiences as a practitioner, analyzing causes, symptoms and methods of treatment. He recorded some 300 classic prescriptions, many of which are still used today. For his first dumplings he boiled mutton with warming herbs like chili (cayenne), which improved circulation and promoted healing. His “Warming Ear Soup” is traditionally eaten on the nights of Winter Solstice and Lunar New Year’s Eve.

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♥ In case you missed my review of Dumpling Days, click here.


Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “a favorite excerpt from Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days

  1. Wow this is making me miss Jiaoza so much! Last night I was reading the opening chapters of Susan Conley’s The Foremost Good Fortune, a memoir of her two years living in China with her husband and sons. They go to a noodle shop in the back alleys of Beijing and have jiaoza for breakfast on her first morning there and it had me drooling. Since they are made from wheat flour I can’t have them anymore! I need to find a gluten free version for sure. And I need to read Grace Lin’s book!! 🙂


    1. I must put Conley’s book on my TBR list. Sounds wonderful. There must be a good gluten free recipe for making the dumpling wrappers. Let me know if you find one! And yes, you definitely need to read Grace’s new book. 🙂


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