There was much rejoicing in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, earlier this month, when it was announced that its citizens had reclaimed their position as the top consumers of gyōza dumplings.

Utsunomiya had held onto the top position for 15 years until 2010, but then it was overtaken by its archrival: Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. The two cities have been battling it out for the top spot in the gyōza wars ever since.

Last year, after losing out to Hamamatsu for two years running, the citizens of Utsunomiya consumed ¥4,359 worth of gyōza per capita, compared to ¥3,506 per person in Hamamatsu. Per capita gyōza consumption is measured by an official survey of randomly selected households conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

There are more than 300 restaurants offering the dumplings in the city and Utsunomiya’s win may help it to boost its image as the “gyōza capital” of Japan. Meanwhile, Hamamatsu is already mulling ways to get back on top, as they too want to claim the title. Like other examples of regional cuisine, such claims to be famous for a certain food are an important part of tourism promotions.

Gyōza are the Japanese adaptation of Chinese jiaozi — meat- and vegetable-filled wheat flour dumplings that are boiled, steamed, pan- or deep-fried, and are often a part of new year celebrations in China, especially in the north.

The first Japanese person to try jiaozi is said to be Tokugawa Mitsukuni, also known as Mito Komon, who was offered some by the exiled Confucian scholar Zhu Zhiyu in the late 17th century.

But the dumplings didn’t become widely known until after World War II, when soldiers returning from northeastern China brought recipes back with them. The modern Japanese name for the dumplings, gyōza, reflects these roots, since it’s derived from “giaoze,” which is what jiaozi are called in the dialect spoken in that part of China. A popular (although not unanimous) theory is that the 14th infantry division of the Imperial Army, who were stationed near Utsunomiya, were the first to introduce gyōza to local restaurants.

A plate of fried gyōza dumplings with crispy 'wings.' | MAKIKO ITOH
A plate of fried gyōza dumplings with crispy ‘wings.’ | MAKIKO ITOH

The dumplings got a big boost in popularity during the 1960s when ready-to-use, machine-made gyōza skins became available. These thin skins are one of the main characteristics of Japanese gyōza that differentiate them from the thicker, chewier homemade skins of jiaozi. Another characteristic is that they are usually steam-fried in a frying pan or on a griddle, so that the bottoms are browned and crispy while the tops are soft.

Boiled and steamed gyōza do exist in Japan, but they are considered to be closer to the original Chinese jiaozi, and in the case of boiled gyōza are usually made with thick and chewy homemade skins. The typical gyōza filling is a mix of ground pork or chicken, as much or more cabbage as meat, and nira (garlic chives) and grated garlic, which tend to give the dumplings a pronounced flavor.

While jiaozi are usually eaten as a main dish in northern China, gyōza are most often considered to be a side dish, to be eaten with rice or another starchy food such as ramen. They’re also very popular drinking snacks, as seen in a current beer commercial for Kirin. Ready-to-cook refrigerated or frozen gyōza are widely available too — Ajinomoto’s frozen gyōza have been the top-selling frozen food product for years.

There are some uniquely Japanese variations of gyōza. The most popular one is panfried gyōza with “wings” — crispy, lacy bits made by adding a starch-water mixture to the pan. Another one is chicken wing gyōza — boned wings stuffed with gyōza filling then grilled or fried.

This recipe is for gyōza with crispy “wings.” I’ve used shio-kōji (salted rice malt) in the filling for extra flavor.

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