Saturday, March 7, 2009

Musings from my brainpan: Dumplings

A few weeks ago, while on a jog, I was contemplating dumplings. That's not an unusual occurrence for me- I frequently listen to NPR's fantastic show "The Splendid Table" while jogging, which naturally makes me think about all things culinary. However, this was a topic that had weighed on my mind since Spring Break.

It all probably started at Dim Sum with my friends in December; won ton soup, it must be said, is awfully similar to ravioli. And the more I thought of it, the more I realized the universality of the "dumpling": boiled dough, sometimes wrapped around meat. In Europe, especially in Berlin, I noticed, more then ever, the variety of Eastern European adaptations of dumplings.

All of this simmered on the back burner of my mind until last week, when I went to get a pork tenderloin sandwich at the Made Rite before seeing Milk, a superb movie. Anyway, I asked what they had for desert that was home made. The apple dumplings, the girl responded. And as I ate my dumpling, I got fed up that I didn't know why I could get this same preparation Italy, Eastern Europe and China. So I decided today to do some research.

I was all ready to do a long project here in Grinnell's Burling Library, consulting dusty old manuscripts with yellowing pages. However, a quick Google search showed me a website had already done most of the research for me (with much more depth). Let me summarize their results here.

NOTE: Unless otherwise cited, everything below is from the website linked above. None of this is original research, and I fully admit that this is in no way original, just a summation.
"Dumpling. A term of uncertain origin which first appeared in print at the beginning of the 17th century, athough the object it denotes--a small and usually globular mass of boiled or steamed dough--no doubt existed long before that. A dumpling is a food with few, indeed no, social pretentions, and of such simplicity that it may plausibly be supposed to have evoloved independently in the peasant cuisines of various parts of Europe and probably in other parts of the world too.
There are quite a few types of dumpling, starting with the Ancient Roman Isicium, which I assume to be the starting point for most European "dumpling", including Eastern European varieties. In Europe, one sees Russian Pelmeni, Jewish Matzoh balls and Italian Ravioli (and later Gnocchi). They also moved East to China, where one sees Wontons.

According to the site, Isicium (literally: minced meat) could refer to multiple types of dumplings. Apicius apparently offered 2 varieties: meat filled and simple. His pheasant dumplings were phesant meat, roasted, and then chopped and shaped with seasonings and trimmings from the bird. The "spoon dumplings" were then boiled in salted water. His simple dumplings were just that: simple. Any meat could be minced, shaped with fat, and then boiled in a liquid. Sometimes tis liquid would be more like what we might consider a glaze.

This Roman dumpling branched out to create the classic European dumplings: your traditional yeasty dough, filled with a regional favorite and boiled. However, the dumpling landscape dramatically changed with the addition of the potato to agriculture.

You see, the potato is not native to Europe; it was imported from the new world. However, with its introduction dumplings were able to expand to their full glory, with the introduction of gnocchi, by those enterprising Italians, and the subsequent adaptation of potatoes into most dumpling doughs. This practice reached even the Eastern most reaches of Europe, to Poland, where potato dumplings remain very popular.

"That's all very well and good", you may ask, "But what about Chinese dumplings? Those are delicious! And they don't taste like gnocchi at all!"

Ah, my dear reader, you are correct. However, this issue is much more tangled.

There are multiple asian versions of filled dumplings, which may more correctly be called ravioli if we wish to apply the western name: the meat is wrapped in noodle, rather than being incorporated into the dough itself.

However, whatever Western name you may wish to use, dumplings can be traced as far back as the Sung dynasty, which ruled from 960-1279. They can be seen today as mantou, which refers to essentially leavened bread which is steamed. A similar preparation is seen in Tibet, where it is called "momo", but is essentially the same dish.

Above: Mantou (Image from Wikipedia)

So did all these dumpling spring from a common origin; perhaps the Roman Isicium, discussed above?

While it is possible, the explanation need not be that simple. Dumplings, at their most fundamental level, are simply boiled carbohydrates. It could simply be that dough, boiled, it an extremely fast and cheap way to get some carbohydrates.

Whatever the explanation, I hope you have enjoyed this short history of one of my favorite foods: the dumpling, either Eastern or Western.

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