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Depending on where you live, where your ancestors came from and where you like to eat dinner, the picture that comes to mind when you hear the word "dumpling" will be unique. continue >>

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If you're Chinese, the New Year will spring to mind, when jiaozi, meat-filled crescent-shaped dumplings are served in great quantities. Those brought up in America may think of dumplings as balls of dough that accompany chunks of white-meat chicken in the comfort-food favorite, chicken and dumplings. If you have a Jewish background, you may remember kreplach, small dough pockets filled with meat, floating in your grandmother's chicken soup. Fans of Japanese food might find their mouths watering to think of gyoza, seared dumplings with a delicious dipping sauce. I myself chose my apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn solely for its proximity to a Polish market, which sells fourteen different types of pierogi, pillows of pasta filled with mixtures ranging from sauerkraut and onions to blueberries. Whatever your dumpling dreams may hold, I think you'll agree that dumplings are something special, a fun food that defies simple definition, but possesses far-ranging culinary possibilities.

The word "dumpling" first appeared in print in the Western world in the early 1600s, though the dumpling concept was certainly in culinary use long before that time. A dumpling, to Europeans, was simply a mass of dough made from flour and water, which was used to add bulk and heartiness to soups and stews. Dumplings were cheap and filling and they exist today in American and European cuisines. These starchy mouthfuls are satisfying and, especially when made with some leavening, they can be light and fluffy additions to a meal. The word "dumpling" doesn't take on its full flavor; however, until we move on to consider the more glamorous cousin to the dough ball, the filled dumpling.

Filled dumplings can be found in cultures all over the world. There's something about the idea of taking a piece of dough, whether made with wheat flour, rice flour, potato, tapioca or any other starch you can imagine, and filling it with meat, vegetables, fruit or what have you, that has become part of the culinary group-mind over many hundreds of years. This definition, of course, is absurdly broad and has led me to ask unanswerable questions such as "Is a ravioli a dumpling? What about an empanada? Why isn't a knish a dumpling?" Such queries have led the dumpling fans in my life to say "Here, Gretchen, have the last won ton," just to shut me up.

The dumpling concept has been taken to its most extreme and delicious lengths by the cultures of Asia. Dumplings appeared in China at least as far back as the Sung dynasty (960-1279 AD) when meat-filled pockets were sold from roadside stalls much as they are on Manhattan's Canal Street in the year 2001. Tea became popular around this time, and dumplings are an important part of dim sum, the beloved snack food of Chinese teahouses. A perennial favorite are "potstickers," dumplings with a flat bottom, two sloping sides and a pleated top, which are pan-seared, then steamed. This two-part cooking technique gives the potsticker a crisp brown underside and tender walls that yield in the mouth to reveal a savory center. Yum. Similar in structure are Japanese gyoza, which are traditionally served with a dipping sauce. Another dumpling common to Chinese and Japanese menus are delicate steamed shao mai, pleated wrappers with an open top, which exposes a meat or seafood filling. Won ton, which are familiar to many Americans as soup-floaters, are named after the word for "chaos" which can be said to describe the messy, wavy edges of the dough covering.

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Published:
September 2004

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