“Why do so many dumpling houses seem to anthropomorphise their dumplings with human faces? Is it because dumplings seem so safe and childlike? Or is it a cultural thing along the lines of Hello Kitty? Having said that, I’ve never seen fried rice with a winking face on it. Thoughts?”
Alice Ryder, Canberra
There are lots of dumpling houses out there sporting logos of happy dumplings. It seems strange considering their kind are being chomped on rather close by.
My favourite happy-faced dumpling establishment is Harajuku Gyoza in Brisbane. The greeting on their Facebook page cheerily states, “Hai! Harajuku Gyoza is a restaurant bar born of an obsession for gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and beer.” What’s not to love? And how do you say no to a face like that?
There’s also dumpling cute taken to the extreme. A larger-than-life dumpling character suit was made for a dumpling festival in Manhattan. I wonder what kind of crazy character would encourage the eating of its own kind. One that would be weeded out quickly by natural selection, for sure.
However, the real question is: why are there so many dumpling characters with faces? It seems like some strange cultural fusion. We’ll start by looking at ‘dumpling’ as a cute English term of endearment, move onto a Chinese association between dumplings and ears, and end up with the possible influence of Pokémon on the faces of our dumplings.
Dumpling as a term of endearment
‘Dumpling’ is one of the loveliest words in English, a term of endearment, indeed, for someone who doesn’t mind being thought of as anaemic and squat. The archaic adjective ‘dump’ meant doughy or dense, and ‘-ling’ is a suffix that, in this context, essentially converts the adjective into a noun.
Oliver Thring, The Guardian
There is certainly a cuteness long associated with the English word for dumpling.
Dumplings and ears
It’s possible that jiaozi, a style of Chinese dumpling, was invented by Zhang Zhongjing, a Han Dynasty traditional medicine doctor. The tale goes something like this…
It is said that on the Winter Solstice, the then retired doctor found many people’s ears had become frostbitten in the freezing weather. To find a cure, the doctor cooked up mutton together with some warm herbs, chopped the mixture into pieces and then wrapped them into a small pieces of dough, in order that the medicine wouldn’t taste so bitter.
The word jiaozi is thought to have evolved from the word jiao’er, meaning tender ears. As such, in Chinese culture, perhaps it is not such a leap to have a dumpling with a face!
Cuteness, such as that seen in the face of Harajuku Gyoza, is possibly one of Japan’s best exports. Known as kawaii, cuteness has become increasingly part of the national culture and identity. Japanese school girls want to be kawaii, with all its connotations of gentleness and sweetness, its comfort and warmth.
Cute characters typically have big heads, small bodies, large eyes and tiny noses. Although Americans have their strong and active cartoon heroes with some of these characteristics, it’s the Japanese who take them to strikingly adorable extremes. Since Hello Kitty started up in the 1970s, Japanese cuteness has risen to new heights.
Adorable Japanese characters, such as Pokémon, are thought to even reduce stress and loneliness. Purchasing cuteness has become a way of lifting of social pressures and returning to childhood, for the Japanese, but also worldwide. Combining kawaii with the dumpling seems a suitable melding of brand associations to communicate a comforting, warm food that can lift the pressures of society. Sounds like a perfect description to me!