Every culture has a dumpling, and I want them all.
Potstickers and pierogi, pasties and samosas, empanadas and ravioli. These are just a few of the hand pies and filled dumplings that people around the world reach for at family get-togethers, annual celebrations and weekday lunches.
The dumplings I knew as a kid weren't really dumplings. Those thick, hand-cut noodles dropped into chicken stew dumplings are still a nostalgic comfort food, but those aren't the dumplings that currently fill my freezer.
I've always tried to keep a little stash of Asian, Italian, Argentinean and Eastern European dumplings for quick dinners, but this year, that stash has grown into a stockpile. It must have something to do with the anxieties and uncertainties of the pandemic - plus all this time at home to cook - that have led to a larger-than-usual supply of dumplings that I can cook for a quick lunch or dinner.
In the past few weeks, I've been focused on making hundreds of Asian dumplings to give away to neighbors and friends, some of whom have welcomed babies during this year of the coronavirus. Reactions are almost identical each time I hand someone a bag, usually filled with some kind of frozen pork-and-scallion stuffed potstickers: raised eyebrows, open mouth and some exclamation along the lines of "Oh, I love dumplings!"
During the past six months, I've written about making empanadas, pierogi and ravioli, but it wasn't until this month's one-person potsticker parties that I started to wonder why I've been so drawn to dumplings this year.
So I reached out to C.K. Chin, the community-building restaurateur behind Wu Chow and Swift's Attic in Austin, Texas. His Chinese restaurant is now selling frozen dumplings by the dozens, and I knew Chin would help me sort out what it is about these little pockets of joy that makes them so magical.
Unlike lasagna, brisket or a big pot of soup, which are also definitely comfort foods, dumplings aren't necessarily meant to feed a crowd - although they certainly can. Dumplings usually start the other way, with a group of people gathered around a table, with everyone putting their labor together to make something that can be divided and shared among them.
Once you've made all those dumplings - no matter what kind - you can store them in a freezer to feed your future self. Dumplings embody a certain kind of optimism, Chin says.
"In Asian cultures, dumplings carry deep symbolism. They are treated with a lot of reverence and good luck because they are shaped like gold ingots. Even if you don't believe the mythos of it, it becomes a tradition in your house," he says.
With humble origins, dumplings don't need much to shine. In Asian cultures, the dough is usually made with flour, water and salt, and in the right hands, those ingredients can transform into an almost transparent skin that maintains a slightly chewy texture when boiled or fried. "It takes out-of-the-box thinking to make it special when you don't have much," he says.
Another special thing about dumplings is that they can be both simple and complex, and they seem to have evolved around the world independently. "Every culture had that spontaneous inspiration," Chin says. No matter where you go, dumplings represent a "whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."
Because they are each made by hand, dumplings require love and care to make, Chin says. That's what ultimately gives them their culinary superpower to soothe, particularly during difficult times.
Chin recalls one of his fondest dumpling memories: "I went to college at Texas A&M, where there's not a lot of good Chinese food," he says. "I came home to visit, and my grandmother had made a bunch of dumplings. I told her how much I'd missed them. Then I go back to college and come back a few months later, and she had wrapped 700, 800 dumplings. I mean, our whole outside freezer was packed with dumplings."
He had to go out and buy a bigger cooler to bring them back to his house in College Station, Texas, where he not only ate the dumplings and thought of his grandmother, but he also gave some to his friends. "Anyone who came over, I gave them dumplings. It was something very special to me," he says. "When they ate it, they remembered my grandmother."
He was the recipient of this kind of gift when one of his friends gave him a batch of tamales that his friend's grandmother had made one holiday season. "I didn't have tamales growing up, so there's no attachment, but I felt a grandmother's love through (them)."
Chin says one of the common threads here is an immigrant family carrying on a tradition that fortifies the bond within a community.
"Acts of service might be the universal love language for immigrant families," Chin says. "And food like this, where you share the burden to make it, says that we're all in this together and we can deal with this together. That's the nature of comfort."
Gary Wu, an owner of Lotus Chinese in Austin, has similar memories of making dumplings with his family when he was a first-generation immigrant growing up in a suburb outside New York City.
His dad's family is originally from Northern China, where there are more wheat products and the dumplings are typically thicker than those found in Japan and Korea.
"We'd spend Sundays making a lot of dumplings, like 500 dumplings," he says. "My dad would make the dough and my mom would make the filling, and my older brother and younger sister and I would get competitive about who could fold the nicest dumplings. The pleating gets nice when you make thousands of them."
Wu and his wife, Jess, welcomed their first baby earlier this year, but instead of stocking their own freezer with dumplings, they've started selling packaged versions of their dumplings at the restaurant and the grocery stores. It's a pandemic pivot that brings him back to their early days of dating.
"When my wife, who is from Texas, was getting to know my parents, we spent one of those days making dumplings together. I cherish that time together."
Olya Petrova Jackson is another Austinite who grew up making and eating dumplings, but she was more than 4,000 miles away from both Wu and Chin.
The Greek-Jewish-Russian co-owner of the Greencart, another Austin food business, lived on the border of Russia and Finland, and her family would make thousands of pelmeni, the Russian version of a dumpling made with unleavened dough and filled with onions and ground pork, beef, venison or even salmon.
"We would store the dumplings underneath the house in a cellar along with the preserves," she says.
As in Asian cultures, Russian dumplings have symbolic meanings and were often used ceremonially, such as before a wedding.
Petrova Jackson's family still lives in Russia, but she has hosted dumpling-making parties in the U.S. with her friends, and they are always special moments where they can participate in a tradition that dates back centuries.
"Every culture has its rituals, and making dumplings with you and yours is a wonderful way to connect and comfort each other," she says.
Each of these dumpling lovers shared thoughts about how dumplings feel like an inherently cross-cultural celebration, which feels particularly meaningful to me during this election season when we're also living through a pandemic.
When Wu wanted to come up with a plant-based dumpling, he turned to the mashed potato-filled, Eastern European pierogi for inspiration. Instead of using white potatoes, he cooked sweet potatoes and mixed them with corn, cabbage, carrots and ginger to create an entirely vegan dumpling.
Chin doesn't consider this kind of remixing of cultures appropriation. "Cultures are continually borrowing traditions from one another," and no matter if it's food or music or fashion, "it's a beautiful opportunity to learn about and experience other people's cultures."
Chin notes that it's natural for people to gravitate toward other cultures' comfort foods. "I didn't eat chicken noodle soup as a kid, but I'm comforted by it," he says. "So much of this starts out as poor food, and then we realize how good it is because of years of necessity, and then people find ways to make it fancy."
Even after a tumultuous year in the hospitality industry, Chin hasn't lost sight of why he's in the business in the first place. Food is a place where people gather to make happy memories. That's where the real joy comes from.
"That's what I love about food and music," he says. "You feel it three times: when you're making it, when you're giving it away and when you're experiencing it. There's not a lot of things that give you all that feeling."
Pan-fried Pork and Kimchi Dumplings
In Korea, the standard dumplings filled with tangy spicy kimchi are known as mandu. I love Korean flavors, which is why I've tried to fuse some elements of both Chinese and Korean food in my recipes. These dumplings are similar in concept to my pan-fried chicken and cabbage dumplings that are infused with tart Chinese sauerkraut (suan cai), but have distinct flavor differences and are a twist on the conventional mandu. Kimchi has a more spicy, tangy and acidic flavor, whereas suan cai has no chile but an unmistakable sour bite.
- Brendan Pang
For the filling:
• 3 1/2 ounces firm tofu
• 5 ounces fatty ground pork
• Scant 2/3 cup kimchi, finely chopped
• 2 green onions, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 30 dumpling wrappers, homemade or store-bought
• Vegetable oil, for frying
• Sichuan chile oil, for serving
• Sliced cucumber, for garnish
• Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Make the filling: Drain the tofu and pat it dry with a paper towel. Stack three or four layers of paper towels on a plate and place the tofu on top. Stack another three or four layers of paper towels onto the tofu, followed by another plate and a few heavy cans of food to help press the tofu down. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to dry.
Remove the tofu from the refrigerator and transfer to a large bowl. Using your hands, break the tofu into crumbs. Add the remaining filling ingredients and stir until well combined.
Working with 1 dumpling wrapper at a time, place 1 level tablespoon of filling in the center of a wrapper and shape into a triangle or half-moon. Cover loosely with a clean, damp tea towel and repeat the process to form the remaining dumplings.
Cook the dumplings: In a large nonstick skillet with a lid, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the dumplings, flat side down. Press down firmly to flatten their base and cook, uncovered, until the base is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan and cover with the lid. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the liquid has cooked off and the undersides of the dumplings are crisp again. If needed, add more oil to help crisp them up. Serve the dumplings immediately with Sichuan chile oil, cucumber and sesame seeds. Makes 30 dumplings.
- From "This Is a Book About Dumplings" by Brendan Pang (Page Street Publishing, $22.99)