It's gyōza time. These 1½-bite pan-fried dumplings — crisp and brown underneath, moist and meaty inside — may have their roots in China, but they're as deeply embedded in Japanese hearts and the daily diet as ramen and chahan (fried rice).

In the past, gyōza always played a subsidiary role. They were what you ordered while you decided what you really wanted to eat, the snack to accompany the first, thirst-quenching flagon of draft beer while waiting for the main course.

But things are different these days: No longer content to play second fiddle, gyōza have started topping the bill, or at least sharing the spotlight.