Dumplings are easily my favorite food group. As a confirmed food nerd, I have a deep seated love for all delicious edibles, but, for some reason, these little doughy packets of wonder have always held a special place in my heart. Growing up, my family had a tradition of going out to Dim Sum in the far flung reaches of Los Angeles’ outskirts. One of my father’s friends was a certifiable expert on authentic Chinese food, and he always took us to these improbably baroque restaurants tucked away in shopping centers with names like The Great Mall of China, where we would feast on dishes ranging from the familiar to the downright strange.
It was on these monthly excursions that I first developed my love of dumplings. I gravitated to them at first because of the ease with which I could lift them with chopsticks. Most of the restaurants we went to didn’t have forks available, and it was hard for a novice five-year-old to manage slippery dishes like noodles, or corral the little bits of rice and vegetables that skittered maddeningly away across the slick china plate at my approach. Dumplings, on the other hand, were easy. You could just stab them with one chopstick and nibble happily!
While my chopsticking abilities grew over time, my love of dumplings remained undiminished. In college, I explored the best New York’s extensive chinatown could offer, often spending sundays in the park with friends watching old men perform Chinese opera and teenagers play brutally competitive handball, as we munched away on great cardboard containers of crispy fried pork and scallion dumplings slicked with Siracha sauce and vinegar. I also branched out into the wider world of dumplings, enthusiastically sampling Polish pirogis, Tibetan mandu, Japanese gyoza, and even sweet Czech zwetschkentnodel.
I’m hardly the first person to be so enthused about the prospect of dumplings. In fact, they are one of the oldest, and most internationally beloved, forms of food in the world. Aside from the tasty examples I mentioned in the last paragraph, dumplings in one form or another can be found in almost every inhabited corner of the world, in variety of diversely delicious forms ranging from Italian ravioli to Indian samosas.
According to the Oxford companion to food, the modern word for dumpling first emerged in England some time in the 1600s, a low German word meaning “little lump.” They had been a popular food in England since the rule of King John, who was so fond of the doughy treats that he famously mandated that every Sunday morning, all the men in his court, from the highest lord to the lowest stable boy, would breakfast on wine and dumplings.
Of course, dumplings themselves had been around for much longer than that! The first cookbook on record, a tome by a famous Roman cook called Apicius, contained a recipe for meat and celery dumplings. And they have been a popular food in China since around 150 A.D. when, according to culinary legend, the famous herbalist Zhang Zhoing Jing developed a method of getting his more reluctant patients to swallow their bitter herbs by wrapping them in dough, and cooking the packets in a deliciously savory broth.
Dumplings quickly became an extremely popular snack food, particularly among merchants and other travelers on the silk road, who found the little packets conveniently easy to store in pockets and munch on as they walked along. It was these early silk road travelers who brought knowledge of dumpling making techniques to the rest of the world, where the basic method of wrapping something yummy in dough was interpreted in a variety of ways suited to a number of diverse local culinary cultures.
I’m on the road right now, and I have to admit that writing this article has left me with a serious craving for the kind of dumpling deliciousness I’ll likely be unable to find in this small town in Utah. So when I get home, maybe I’ll host a dumpling party, and have friends over to wrap, fold, steam, and gobble down as many dumplings as our stomachs can handle. What kind of dumplings should I make? Leave your suggestions in the comments, please, and hey, if they turn out well, maybe I’ll even mail you some!