What is a dumpling?
This is the question I’ve asked dozens of chefs and other experts over the past year in my quest to understand one of the world’s most beloved and ubiquitous foods.
“Technically, a spring roll is a dumpling,” says chef Shirley Chung during a recent visit to her restaurant Ms. Chi in Culver City. Sitting next to her at the table are food writer Andy Wang and food consultant and event planner Caryl Chinn. I turned to these three for advice because they are known for their experience in making dumplings – after all, they call themselves the dumpling mafia. “Definition [it] There is a wrapper and there is a filling. “Pelmeni” is a big umbrella.”
Also on her list of dumplings are cabbage rolls, empanadas, even calzones, which she calls “giant dumplings.”
“So, based on that, chimichanga is a dumpling,” adds Wang.
“Takito is a dumpling because it’s a Mexican spring roll,” Chang says.
I chime in to ask if Uncrustables, the sealed pockets of crustless white bread filled with peanut butter and jelly found in the frozen aisles of most grocery stores, are dumplings. I’m half kidding.
“Yes, my God,” Chang says, “it’s just dumplings.”
And we all go down the dumpling rabbit hole. Indeed, my understanding of dumplings expanded exponentially while filming the second season of the Wish List video series, which premiered today. with 11 series dedicated to stuffed and wrapped, steamed, grilled, fried and boiled delicacies.
According to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, there is no right answer to what makes a dumpling a dumpling.
“I think the problem is that people always want a narrow answer, and when you think about the breadth of what dumpling is, you have to be really flexible,” she said during a recent call. “When you realize that every kitchen has dumplings… food is a way to bring us together, not divide us, so be generous with your response.”
At first I thought that the history of dumplings might shed some light on the definition. It turns out that dumplings do not have a single generally recognized origin. Author Barbara Gallani traces their evolution in her 2015 book Dumplings: A Global History, citing variations across the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe spanning centuries. Gallani’s book recognizes filled and packaged dumplings, unpackaged and unfilled, roughly cut, precisely folded, and everything in between.
“Dumplings have evolved independently in many different parts of the world through the use of common ingredients,” she writes. “Travel and commercial exchanges facilitated the transfer of certain forms and combinations of flavors from country to country and between continents.”
Depending on who you ask, tamales and humitas in Latin America, fermented corn kenki in West Africa, cinnamon sauce in South Africa, Turkish tatar boregi (also known as manti) and spatzlé in Austria are all dumplings.
There are as many terms used for dumplings in the world as there are variations. The etymology of many is related to their form or content.
“For example, the English word ‘dumpling’ dates back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when the now obsolete noun ‘dump’, which probably meant ‘piece’, was given a diminutive suffix,” writes Gallani.
In Cantonese, the word “wonton” can be translated as “cloud swallowing”, which may refer to the shape of the dumplings floating in the soup. Jiaozi, Chinese crescent-shaped dumplings, get their name from both their shape (jiao can mean horn) and their background. It is widely believed that a Chinese medical practitioner named Zhang Zhongjing invented the jiaozi during the Han Dynasty while looking for a way to help villagers suffering from frostbite, mostly around the ears, during very cold winters. He wrapped lamb and medicinal herbs in scraps of dough and served them in hot broth.
Dumplings are easy to associate with Asian cuisine. In her 2009 book Asian Dumplings, Nguyen deliberately included dishes that would challenge most people’s understanding of Asian dumplings. Her book has recipes for spicy potato samosa; turnovers from beef, sweet potatoes and raisins; Shanghai and Filipino spring rolls; glutinous rice and lotus-leaf chicken; dried shrimp and rice rolls with green onions; Nepalese vegetable and cheese dumplings; steamed burgers and baked buns.
“The thing with Asian dumplings is that people think they just boil down to dim sum, and even in the world of dim sum, there are all kinds. They’re not all potstickers and dumplings in soup,” Nguyen says. “When I was thinking about which dumplings to include, I got to the bottom of what dumplings are, and they are inherently made with the usual ingredients you have on hand, and that’s why they comfort us so much.”
I grew up tasting lots of dumplings in the big Chinese malls in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, well-lit, colorful mazes, full of restaurants advertising thick and wheat-boiled fish dumplings, steamer baskets full of thin-skinned xiao long bao, translucent.. skinned har gao, fishtail wontons floating in chili oil, pan-fried potstickers, and golden crescents swollen with chopped herbs and glass noodles.
When I travel, I visit the Chinatown of any major city in search of dumplings.
I started taking my friends on dumpling trips about a decade ago, aiming to introduce any interested person to the wide variety available at my favorite malls. Although the crawl was mostly in the San Gabriel Valley, I knew there was more to explore there. (I’ll be hosting a version of my Sept. 24 dumpling round at the night market during the LA Times Food Bowl next month.)
In Los Angeles, we were lucky to find dumplings from all over the world. Koreatown has softball-sized royal dumplings that are buoyant and teeming with minced pork and kimchi chunks, glass noodles, and green onions. Gyoza sheets held together by a thin, crisp layer of lace starch are easy to find. In Glendale, they serve trays of manti drenched in savory tomato sauce and thick yogurt.
The second season of The Wish List focuses on the generally accepted definition of dumplings. During the season, you will hear performances by dumpling producers from Armenia, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Italy, and Eastern Europe. There is more than one definition, and no one is wrong – even when they call the Uncrustables sandwich a dumpling.
“Chinese families, we make dumplings together for Chinese New Year; … Mexican families get together on Christmas Eve to make tamales together,” Chang says. “It’s exactly the same culture. It’s all about love and family.”
Find the Wishlist: Dumplings video series at youtube.com/latimesfood. And get tickets to Jenn Harris’ dumpling event during the LA Times Food Bowl night market at lafoodbowl.com/night-market.