Ode to the Dumpling: History in a Single Bite

A thousand-year history of the dumpling — the food world’s first fad.


Photo by Neal Santos

This love affair we have with bacon is stupid. Bacon is delicious, but it’s one-dimensionally delicious. The best thing you can do with bacon is have more bacon, and this leads to nothing but a sort of culinary one-upmanship reminiscent of Cold War nuclear proliferation.

Lemongrass was the bacon of the 1990s. We got past it. The recent obsession with cupcakes nearly derailed the upward curve of American cuisine. Thank the food gods that long national nightmare is behind us. Fried chicken worries me a little because in some quarters, it’s worshipped like the Second Coming of flourless chocolate cake — the thing that’s going to save us all, translate across all customer demographics, make any chef who can dunk a bird in hot fat the prettiest stripper in town.

You want to know the thing we all should be obsessed with? The dumpling. The dumpling is the solution to all the (bad, dumb, ridiculous) questions posed by fusion cooking in the days when fusion was huge. It’s the thing that unites all cuisines everywhere — more than the taco, more than fried chicken — because it’s the thing that all cuisines have in common. The dumpling gives comfort to diners in duress as they stare down a menu filled with words they’ve never seen before and ingredients they can’t pronounce. The dumpling is beloved in its innumerable forms and disguises. It’s a tiny, unassuming and awesome hand grenade that can be packed with a virtually limitless spread of culinary ordnance and deployed in a thousand different ways. Lucky for us, they are all over Philly.

Every national cuisine has some kind of dumpling analog, a version that holds a place of great love and honor in the traditional canon.

In Russia, there are pelmeni. The Italians have ravioli and gnocchi. There are Polish pierogi, Argentine empanadas, Japanese gyoza and dango, Czech halusky, Keralan ada, kenkey from West Africa, Mongolian buuz, Swedish palt, Indian samosa and Ukrainian varenyky. And that’s just a start. Almost everywhere we went throughout this project — every weird post-Soviet disco restaurant and underground bunker full of nak gop and galbitang — there were dumplings on the menu.

Is there some unique history of dumplings in Philly? No. They’ve always been here. Since the first restaurant. Since the first cooking pot. No, even before that. American Indians ate dumplings, too. The Iroquois made dumplings from hominy flour, blackberries, strawberries and black walnuts. The point is, dumplings are the O.G. food trend. Cronuts can suck it. Their fame lasted a week. Maybe two. Dumplings have been around for a thousand years, and they’re still going strong. And why?

Because dumplings are the perfect food. Want a recipe for making dumplings? Here it is:

Take anything delicious.

Wrap it in something edible.

Become the most beloved cook in your particular zip code.

Seriously, that’s all it takes. And sometimes, as with gnocchi or the kind of American dumplings that finish off a plate of chicken and dumplings, you can even skip the anything delicious part. Sometimes just the dough of a dumpling is enough.

All of us, we’re more alike than you think. Know why? We all love dumplings. Our critic, Trey Popp, tells a story about eating dim sum in a Chinatown restaurant with a Jewish family and a friend who spoke Cantonese. Orders were placed, and when the waitress felt as though the table was going to end up a couple plates short of a satisfying meal, she had some advice for the Cantonese speaker who was doing all the ordering.

“Just get some more dumplings,” she told the man. “White people love dumplings.”

Which is, okay, a teensy bit racially insensitive, maybe, but also completely true and, also-also, completely missing the point. Dim sum isn’t only about dumplings, but dim sum is largely about dumplings. It’s a side alley of Chinese cuisine (as brunch is to the traditional American oeuvre) that offers vegetables and rice and chicken feet and soup and little fried things, but also, even in its most traditional translation, a shit-ton of dumplings. Because, yes, white people love dumplings (I can say that because I’m a white people), but, obviously, so do Chinese people. They invented this stuff, after all. It’s not like Marco Polo went to China with his pockets stuffed with bao. Nixon didn’t bring a bunch of shu mai with him the first time he went to China, drop them on the table, and say, “Guys, you gotta check these out. White people love these things.”

So you wanna jump on this dumpling wagon with us? Go out for dim sum, certainly. Start with Ocean Harbor and Dim Sum Garden in Chinatown, and don’t forget New Harmony, which has dumplings hiding everywhere on its menu. Bing Bing, the new place from the Cheu Noodle Bar crew, should be open by the time this sees print, and though I obviously haven’t eaten there yet, I know where they ate while doing research, and I trust them to do right.

After that, you’re at sea, my friends. Put on a blindfold, walk 100 yards in any direction, and the odds are good that you’ll find dumplings — even if you end up eating them in someone’s home kitchen. Hit Seorabol for Korean mandu dumpling soup. Go to the Austrian Village and Brauhaus Schmitz for competing spaetzles, and argue over whether spaetzle itself is a dumpling or a pasta or something in between. Get your samosa fix at Desi Chaat House or Tiffin, or at Indeblue if you’re comfortable with a little bit of fusion (really, a lot of fusion). Skip Rosa Blanca if you’re looking for empanadas. They’re just not good enough. Go instead to Cuba Libre.

And there’s so much more. Shrimp dumpling soup at Sang Kee. Gyoza and deep-fried shu mai at Terrakawa Ramen. Ravioli from everywhere, and pierogi (and golabki) from Royal Cracovia, and fufu from Klade’s or Le Mandinque. Dumplings are what tie us all together. They’re what unite all the disparate flavors in this guide. Dumplings are the common link between cuisines separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles. They’re history in a single bite, and the way food speaks to us even when we don’t understand the language.

Originally published  in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.