Small skins of dough wrapped around a filling. It’s a pretty broad definition for the many types of dumplings you can try, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a culture that does not have some semblance of dumpling-ness on its culinary road map. The word brings to mind China, but ravioli and tortellini also qualify.
The dumpling wrapping must be made of some starch, it should surround a filling (usually meat, fish, vegetables or an otherwise savoury combination), and then it is cooked as one unit: steamed, boiled, or sautéed, to name the most common methods (but don’t begrudge the luxuries of deep-frying).
So is there a difference between stuffed pasta and dumplings. Under our working definition, we don’t draw a line between the two. While potato-based gnocchi fall clearly into the dumpling camp, other Italian classics like ravioli and its lesser-known cousins like fagottini, agnoloti, and mezzeluna are also dumplings by another name.
Historically, these stuffed pastas can even be traced back to archetypal Chinese dumplings, brought to Sicily in the 7th or 8th century by Arab traders and adapted to locally available ingredients. They are branches on the same family tree. It’s a meal in a package, or rather a series of little packets. We’re going to rule them out as more in the sandwich/wrap continuum, rather than the vortex of dumplings. Likewise, croquettes seem sufficiently distinct that we’ll save them for another time. With a potato dumpling museum in Germany, we’re pretty sure there are plenty of examples of little treats to qualify in our tour this month.
Here is a plateful of types of dumplings…
This is something of a catch all term for a variety of small, Chinese dumplings that are served in soup (as opposed to tangbao, which contain soup). The wrapping is made of egg, flour, water and salt – standard in the world of dumplings – while the filling is usually ground pork or shrimp with green onion and spices.
The ultimate oversized soup dumpling is steamed in bamboo and full of goodness in the form of a soup broth that pours forth when you bite, and is spiked with pork gelatin and occasionally crab roe. Oddly perhaps, the normal way to tackle one of these babies is to drink the soup with a straw and then nibble the dough afterwards.
We’re going to cheat a bit: many of the world’s dumplings, particularly in East Asian countries, are very similar. We could have Chinese baozi or jiaozi, Korean mandu, or Mongolian buuz on the list, but the descriptions would be too similar. Viewed from an Instagram angle (above, nice lighting, plate centred) they look alike – pinched rounds of dough with meat and veg tucked inside, traditionally steamed and flanked by accompanying sauces. Here the Nepali variant stands out, with traditional garlic chili and sesame puree for dipping. But depending on just where in Nepal you find yourself, you could order up some momos filled with yak.
Gyoza are a parallel to Chinese jiaozi, but with much more of a garlic kick. Both are usually pan-fried, as opposed to steamed, so the wrapping gets a crisp, browned bite to it.
Go to a Georgian restaurant and this is what you will want (and remember fondly). Pyramidal pinch-peaked, fist-sized dumplings full of minced meat, spices and above all, the spice that distinguishes Georgian cuisine and features in so many of its specialties: cumin. They are most reminiscent of soup dumplings, because the filling is cooked inside the dough, so the juices are trapped until that key moment when you slice or bite into it. Then it’s party time.
More similar to Asian dumplings than the central European knedliky that the name suggests, these wonton-like dumplings are traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah before the Yom Kippur fast, or filled with dairy and eaten on purim (but in the kosher tradition, never made with meat and dairy in the same meal).
Filled with ground beef or lamb with green vegetables and onions these look like they are of East Asian origin, and indeed they are. But good ideas, like entire meals (meat, veg, starch) in little packets, travel far.
With a wide array of stuffings and accompaniments, pierogi warrant an article of their own: here you can enjoy our piece about Polish pierogi from the Cooking the Classics series.
Throughout the Middle East you can find little lozenges of bulgur full of minced onions and ground meat – flavoured with allspice, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, then fried.
Italian ravioli and tortellini
Stuffed pasta dough, in a variety of shapes (and we’re just naming two) are a staple of Italian cooking, particularly in the culinary nucleus of the country, Bologna and Modena. Legend has it that the Italian tortellini shape was modelled on the bellybutton of Botticelli’s Venus, but this sounds like too good a story to be true. An alternative version says that an innkeeper took a sneaky look at Lucrezia Borgia’s bellybutton through a keyhole and created tortellini in its honour. A third version says that it is shaped like a turtle, an homage to the turtle-themed architectural details found in Modena. Whatever the origin, serve them up!
Russia’s dumplings, likely first imported by Asian traders, might have meat, fish or even mushrooms in them, and are distinguished from Asian versions by their appearance (more tortellini than bao, with a sour cream dip). They are similar to Ukranian varenyky and Polish pierogi, as well as Kazakh manti. In Latvia you’ll find them fried. Before the days of deep-freezers, Siberians would still treat pelmeni as a frozen food. Prepared in winter and allowed to freeze outdoors, they would be preserved and could be quickly and easily defrosted and cooked.
A branch of the dumpling family that can be considered distinctive, perhaps a second cousin to the Asian dumpling of our imagination, but no less tasty. These are the Germanic/central European variety, still referred to as dumplings (knodel in German), but actually more like rolled balls of bread-based stuffing that is cooked and served whole or sliced, to soak up sauce and fill out a meal of meat or stew.
The starch component can vary (from potato to rice to varieties of flour), and the finished product is steamed before being served as a side. There are also sweet variants, in which a piece of fruit, like a de-stoned apricot, is placed at the centre of the dough ball, and the finished dish is served with sugar sautéed in butter, as a streusel topping.
Slovenian Idrijski zlikrofi
Slovenes love their dumplings, but most are similar to the knodel/knedliky style. The exception are those from the town of Idrija. Made of dough and stuffed with potato, they can be either a main course (topped with crumbled breadcrumbs) or served as a side with meat. As a main, it is a starch–fest (dough wrapping potato and topped with crumbs of dough). The danger with such things is that, if poorly made, they are awfully heavy. But when made well, like their cousin, Italian gnocchi, they are light and heavenly.
Finnish and Swedish blodpalt
Palt is a general Scandinavian term for dumplings made of barley and/or rye flour (and occasionally potato, as well). But in this variant, as the name suggests, blood was added to the dough, providing flavour, colour and nutrition. We tend not to think of something blood-flavoured, but in fact most of the flavour of steak comes from the blood (this is why an overcooked, “well-done” steak, dry from too much cooking and the evaporation of the bloody juices in the meat, has less taste than a rare steak).
Dive deeper into dumplings
Now that your mouth is watering from the descriptions of all these dumpling, why not try your hand at some of them. A good place to start would be this beef gyoza recipe, with a crisp carapace swollen by minced beef, garlic, onions, and spices. Or venture into the world of gnocchi by trying this recipe with squash, egg, fondue and truffle. Or if you’re sick of stuffing things into starches, pack tomatoes with tuna and sage, cram porcini mushrooms full of bacon and anchovies, or glut a duck with bacon and fennel.