Boston Chefs and Food Scholars Debate Dumplings
We explore what makes a true dumpling, and where to find the best in town.
Before we dive in, a disclaimer: The following exploration of dumpling identity politics may be offensive to some readers. As a journalist, it’s my job to address controversial topics head-on and I offer no apologies, so you may want to put the kids to bed now.
Dumplings are a celebrated foodstuff sought after in hole-in-the-wall eateries and Michelin-rated restaurants everywhere. But dumplings were a global tradition long before ascending to the culinary A-list. They started life as humble, functional peasant food used to stretch out a meal, utilize leftovers, or mark occasions. Where exactly they originated is unclear. Written descriptions can be found in Apicius, a collection of ancient Roman recipes written at the turn of the fourth century, as well as in Chinese records dating back to the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), though they surely predate such accounts. Due to their simplicity, the prevailing theory among scholars is that dumplings likely developed independently throughout the world, with no single country or region able to claim the patent.
You may be thinking, “This is great! Dumplings are delicious! We all invented them and nobody’s feelings got hurt. Let’s wake the kids up and go for ice cream!” Not so fast, Jack. We’ve only just begun.
See, there’s a serious discrepancy between what we commonly think of as dumplings and what the word actually means. In English, a dumpling refers to a steamed or boiled lump of dough, often used as a filler for soups and stews. Think matzo balls and gnocchi. This definition has expanded to include dumplings stuffed with meat, as well as the sweet fruit-filled variety, but in this case, dough is paramount and filling is a flourish.
However, when most people think of dumplings, they associate them with the East Asian varieties like wontons, momos and jiaozi. You can add the likes of Jewish kreplach, Central Asian manti and Russian pelmeni to this category. This family of dumpling has a thinner outer layer and the filling is essential.
Dr. Ken Albala is the director of food studies at the University of the Pacific. He laid out the differences for me. “Dumpling originally refers to a roundish blob of dough dropped directly into boiling water or broth. So bread and crumb mixtures you find all over Eastern Europe are proper dumplings,” he said. “Asian dumplings are nothing of the kind, they’re noodles with fillings, boiled or steamed. It was a mistake to call them that in the first place.”
Is your mind blown?
The reason for the confusion is simple: English is limited. We use Latin to classify species, French for cooking terminology, and our curse-words fall far below global averages in both creativity and imagery. English lacks the linguistic specificity to account for all the various forms of regional foods, so the word dumpling was applied wholesale, creating a bitterly divisive semantic debate.
Alan Davidson, author of The Oxford Companion to Food, finds these taxonomic broad strokes particularly offensive to his originalist interpretation. He takes issue with “the numerous tribe of dumpling lookalikes, things which are neither dumplings nor English, but have been called dumplings, when an English name for them has been required.” The application of the word to East Asian dumplings is particularly offensive to Davidson, who calls it a “heinous excursion.”
It was time for some Bostonians to weigh in on the debate, so I stopped into Café Polonia, a Polish restaurant in Dorchester, to get an Eastern European perspective. I eschewed pirogues in favor of boiled, fleshy potato dumplings. They were covered in a beef and mushroom goulash, accompanied by chilled beet and cabbage salads. The dumplings were starchy, yet surprisingly light.
I invited restaurant manager Justyna Szreter to join me in discussing the intricacies of the dumpling debate. When I asked her if she considered pirogues a type of dumpling, she shook her head emphatically no, and I couldn’t help but feel like I’d disappointed her.
“The dough is totally different,” she explained, describing the variances in composition in the two dishes. Pirogues are made entirely from flour and have an elastic texture, while Polish dumplings are doughy, made mostly with potatoes and little flour. “In Poland, you have pirogues and dumplings and that’s it,” she said.
Okay, I get where these guys are coming from, but there’s got to be some middle ground, right?
Author Barbara Gallani takes a more egalitarian approach in her book Dumplings: A Global History. According to Gallani, there are “both unfilled and filled varieties, including what is sometimes described as filled pasta." That said, she prefers "to exclude frying and baking as cooking methods, since these result in what people usually recognize as 'fritters.'”
This is a common viewpoint, and brings up the issue of where we draw the line. While Gallani refutes fritters’ claim to dumplinghood, Maria Polushkin, author of The Dumpling Cookbook, argues otherwise, stating that fritters have “certain obvious connections [to] both dropped and filled dumplings… the most elaborate example of which is tempura.” Polushkin’s daring inclusion of tempura in the dumpling debate is problematic, opening the door for other disputed dishes like knishes, empanadas and samosas.
I also met with chef Greg Reeves of Cambridge's Viale, who took the conversation in a completely different direction. “The word dumpling on the surface refers to Asian food,” he said. “Gyoza. Wontons. In my mind, those are the first things I think of. When you bring in pasta, you’re pushing it.”
Apparently, I was in the mood to push it. I ordered tortellini, a classic stuffed pasta, filled with short rib and beets, alongside Brussels sprout leaves, fried parsnip, sunchoke puree and a dusting of fresh horseradish. The firm, fresh pasta was a good vehicle for its contents and accompaniments. Tortellini are my favorite food, and I thought I’d find clarity through comfort. But my investigatory instincts were unsatisfied. There was more to this story.
My next move was to call local food anthropologist Lilly Jan, who holds a masters degree in gastronomy from Boston University. “I think the dumpling needs to be filled. I really do believe that,” she told me. “In the world of Italian cooking, for example, I’d consider the ravioli closer to a dumpling than a gnocchi. With chicken and dumplings, I think of those as biscuits.”
Jan’s radical interpretation may not fit with the encyclopedic definition, but it is in line with the parlance of our times. “I look at it from a cultural definition, rather than a literal definition," she continued. "Even if the word 'dumpling' wasn’t created to describe the Asian dumpling, it’s certainly evolved into that. If it’s become the cultural reference point, it’s difficult to argue.”
The journalist in me couldn’t rest until I’d tasted East Asian dumplings for myself, so I stopped by Myers + Chang in the South End for Mama Chang’s pork and chive potstickers and braised pork belly buns. The pan-fried dumplings were juicy and balanced by an allium bite. The buns were wrapped in bao, which, interestingly, is closer in consistency to a European dumpling. Fluffy and just a little sweet, they had me wondering what they would taste like stacked and covered in maple syrup.
I spoke with executive chef Karen Akunowicz, who explained her dumpling outlook to me. She is of the mind that dumplings need to meet two requirements: they must be made of dough or a starchy plant product, and be steamed, simmered or boiled. By this definition, Akunowicz believes that “East Asian dumplings, like the sticky rice bahn it, the Indian vada and even Middle Eastern varieties, are all still dumplings.”
“I love that dumplings transcend cultures,” she continued. “They often involve two or more people coming together to make them. Dumplings, like bread, pancakes, pasta or biscuits, really represent the foundations of good cooking, and the magic simplicity of a few good ingredients.”
And then she dropped the mic.
After all this, I’m still not sure I know what the true meaning of dumpling is. But I don’t recommend waking your kids up to tell them everything they know is a lie. Let them sleep through the night, and in the morning hug them and tell them everything’s going to be alright because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that dumplings come in all shapes and sizes, and we can love them in whatever way makes us most happy.
Café Polonia – 611 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-269-0110, cafepolonia.com
Viale – 502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-576-1900, vialecambridge.com
Myers + Chang – 1145 Washington St., Boston, 617-542-5200, myersandchang.com