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