Discover the World: One Dumpling at a Time
By Madalina Hubert
Today, when we think of dumplings, Chinese dumplings often come to mind–the jiaozi, the wonton, the baozi, as well as other tasty morsels found in dim sum. However, the dumpling has found many homes around the world. Each region has discovered its unique way of adapting it to its national characteristics. As such, this simple dish, which consists of dough wrapped around a filling, or even dough with no filling, has evolved into many different shapes and sizes, and you will likely recognize many of these varieties.
Italians enjoy a tasty assortment of ravioli, tortellini, and gnocchi; the Spanish and Latin Americans love their empanadas; the Polish have made the pierogies a national dish, while the now-famous samosa has become a staple of many Indian restaurants.
The Germans also enjoy the dumpling (under various guises) as a side dish for many meals. It is so popular that the state of Thuringia has dedicated its own museum to the potato dumpling. If you’ve ever dreamt about stepping into a giant dumpling, visiting this monument of the popular food is your chance.
There are many regional legends related to the dumpling. It is said to originate more than 1800 years ago in ancient China. There is a story of a famous doctor by the name of Zhang Zhongjing served dumplings to cure people’s frostbitten ears. He mixed mutton, chilli and warming herbs and wrapped them into ear-shaped dough skins. The effects were immediate. Not only did it stimulate people’s circulation, but the delicious taste also resonated with them and it soon became a popular dish. In China, the dumpling has since become a favourite for festivals, particularly New Year’s celebrations, and is said to bring good fortune.
Around the world, dumplings were originally a peasant meal, but they have since evolved into a mainstream snack. Hardy, delicious and easy to prepare, they consist of dough that may range from many types of grains. The Filling can be varieties of meat, seafood, cheese, vegetables or herbs. In addition to the savoury kinds, there are also dumpling desserts, which may include fruit, red bean and other sweet ingredients.
There are also a variety of preparation methods, including simmering, steaming, boiling, baking or frying. Wontons and jiaozi are good examples of steamed or boiled dumplings; empanadas and samosas can either be baked or fried and some like the pierogies maybe both boiled and pan-fried.
There are also a variety of ways of serving them. For example, dumplings are a great favourite of dim sum, a Cantonese brunch, consisting of a wide range of flavours and sauces. They can also be eaten in soups (wonton soup), as side dishes (the potato dumplings in Germany can be served with sausages and sauerkraut) with sauces (ravioli) and sour cream (pierogies). The dumplings are so versatile that they have easily adapted to local conditions. For example, the Spanish brought over the empanadas to Latin America during their explorations. They quickly became popular since they are tasty, filling, and relatively easy to prepare.
In terms of cooking methods, steamed and boiled, or even baked, are the healthiest options, while deep-fried is the least advised. Although when enjoyed in small quantities, we may even get away with deep-fried dumplings at times.
Health and Diet
As we have seen, dumplings have been favourites of people all around the world for hundreds and even thousands of years. Dumplings are eaten during celebrations, special occasions and are even linked to national identity. Thus, no need to feel guilty about enjoying them, unless of course, you have special dietary restrictions. But like with everything, it’s important to eat them in moderation as part of a balanced diet. If you’re eating meat, try to eat lean meat, and accompany them with a healthy dose of vegetables on the side. At the same time, don’t go overboard in eating too many of them. After all, many dumplings consist mostly of carbohydrates, while the filling is found in smaller quantities.
Of course, eating dumplings with friends and family is best. They are playful and versatile and can be adapted to many important occasions. Dumplings are also a good opportunity to celebrate one’s national heritage, as well as to discover other people’s cultural traditions. For example, while they are all dumplings, the samosa with its spicy texture tells a different story than the pierogi or the empanada.
Delving into History
Oftentimes this history is a colourful one. We have already learned of the great Chinese doctor Zhang Zhongjing who restored the local people’s health in ancient times. There is yet another fascinating story of the dumpling from Germany.
In the 1600s during the 30 Year War, the Swedish army invaded a little town by the name of Freckenfeld. The hungry army was planning to pillage and destroy the town unless the local inhabitants figured out a way to feed them. A baker by the name of Johannes Muck combined water, flour and wine sauce and created a steam fried dumpling, called Dampfnudel. He made 1286 of them and satisfied the hungry army. The area has since celebrated a festival to remember the dumplings that saved Freckenfeld. The town has even built an archway with bumps that represent the 1286 Dampfnudels, whose image has since become part of the Freckenfeld’s coat of arms.
There are several other dumpling festivals in the world that celebrate local history and traditions, as well as multicultural influences. Examples include the Festival of the Empanada in Galicia, Spain; Taste of Latino: Empanada Festival in Florida, US; the Pierogi Festival in Poland, the Samosa Festival in Nairobi, Kenya, and many more.
So what makes the dumpling a beloved dish with such a colourful history? Think of your own experience with this tasty treat and see if you can trace your own dumpling connections. You might be amazed at what you discover.
Madalina Hubert is a Toronto-based writer specializing in art, culture, travel, and culinary explorations.