Name a country, and no question they will have their own version of dumplings, and certainly more than one. They are traditional foods for millions, eaten during religious and festive holidays, enjoyed with meats, covered with gravy, served as desserts or simply alone as a light meal. They can be dipped, stuffed, boiled, fried, or steamed.
Dumplings are an ancient food. Historians believe that cavemen actually prepared some version. (Perhaps ground up dinosaur formed into a ball and dropped into boiling water, once they figured out how to create fire.) Filled dumplings probably developed centuries later, known as iiaozi, most likely about 2,000 years ago. Credit for their creation is given to a man named Zhang Zhongjian, a renowned doctor of herbal medicine during the Han Dynasty. Many poor people in his hometown suffered from the cold temperatures and had frost bitten ears. He made up big vats of boiled vegetable soup, added herbs, then dropped in dumplings and fed the concoction to the populace. (Surely this was the forerunner to chicken soup for colds and flu.) The dumplings were made from thin wheat sheets and chopped vegetables. The herbal soup was filling, soothing and helped unthaw the locals. They actually resembled the same shape and size you see today in Chinese restaurants.
Although they had been eaten for centuries in China, during the 13th century Turkish traders were introduced to manti dumplings in Mongolia. They resembled the traditional Chinese, a thin dough filled with meats and veggies then steamed, often served with garlic and yogurt, pickled cabbage or cucumber. The Turks took them back to the Middle East and from there they made their way to Western Europe, where each country created its own version. Italians first introduced the concept of dumplings with their light, potato-based gnocchi sometime in the 15th century. Sadly for explorer Marco Polo, who lived several hundred years earlier, he missed out on this glorious Italian specialty and had to limit his dumpling consumption to trips to China. (A long way to go for take-out.) Eventually tortellini and ravioli pasta were created, similar to the Chinese wonton.
India has many versions of dumplings, which vary by region and by traditional holidays and religious feasts. Africa as well features a multitude of types and cooking methods, from country to country. Spanish empanadas are a favorite in many South American countries, including Mexico and the Caribbean. They may be fried or steamed, with sweet or savory fillings. English and Irish usually drop them into stews. In Czech and other Slavic countries, bread dumplings are the most popular, which are made from a yeast dough, formed into one large dumpling resembling a football, and boiled until done. Light and delicious, they are served with gravy or sauerkraut. Fruit dumplings, a favorite dessert or light meal, are prepared by wrapping dough around a plum or apricot and boiling until done, then topped with melted butter, cinnamon, sugar and served hot.
For the Colonists, dumplings in some form were an easy way to stretch soups and stews. And there is some evidence that even the Native American Indians had some form prior to the Colonial settlements, probably made with corn meal. They could take just about any meat or vegetable, chop it up, wrap it in dough or some old bread and drop it into the boiling pot over the hearth. As thousands of ethnic immigrants poured into New York City, they brought their own traditional recipes and versions with them, turning the country’s melting pot into just that–filled with dumplings. In the Midwest and the South, where chickens were plentiful and Sunday dinner was a tradition, chicken and dumplings took center stage after a morning in church. This popular dish is still embraced and enjoyed by millions and is as traditional as apple pie, or make that apple dumplings. It is highly likely that foodie President Thomas Jefferson enjoyed Sunday dinners of chicken and dumplings at the White House as well as his home, Monticello.
Many restaurants and towns across the country celebrate Dumpling Week, and entire restaurants feature them in their name. (The Dumpling House is a popular eatery in Chicago’s suburbs where a large population of Slovak and German descendants reside.)
If there is one common food that unites the entire world, it’s got to be dumplings. So did the cavemen start the trend? Or was it the Chinese? You decide. The Japanese said it best: “Dumplings are better than flowers.”
Life without dumplings is unimaginable for author Dale Phillip. Growing up in Chicago, they were a weekly favorite at her family’s dinner table. Bread dumplings smothered in sauerkraut or gravy were served along with meat or poultry, the liver variety graced homemade soups, and plum dumplings were a Sunday favorite. Residing now in Southern California, they are sadly scarce except at Asian restaurants, but they still remain at the top of her foodie hit parade, even though nobody can make them as well as her mother did. Dale invites you to visit her many articles on the history of Food and Drink.