Wontons. Kreplach. Tortellini.
Dumplings can be found in almost every country. According to CNN, a dumpling is “a pocket of dough filled with some form of savory or sweet stuffing.” That leaves a lot of room for cuisines, fillings, and spices.
Legend says the first dumpling was created in China. It was a cold, harsh winter in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Zhang Zhongjing was a medical man who dabbled in pharmacology, medicine, and inventions. Zhang traveled often during a time when warlords battled for territory and people suffered from many infectious diseases. Zhang returned to his home town, Nanyang, only to find many people with frostbite and circulatory problems. He invented a “treatment” by wrapping mutton, black pepper, herbs, and chilies in dough then steaming it.
Wikimedia Commons: Zhang Zhongjing
Do you think Zhang knew that his invention would spread around the world?
Different cuisines have their own dumplings. There are samosas from India, spätzle from Germany, empanadas from Spain, and kneidlach from Israel. Each has a story, unique ingredients, different shapes, and eager diners!
Meet Nom Wah.
Nom Wah is the oldest tea parlor/dumpling house in New York City. It’s located on the one-block-long twisty Doyers Street named for Dutchman Hendrick Doyer who bought the land in 1791. Over a century later, Nom Wah moved in. The street was called the Bloody Angle for the notorious Chinese Tong Gang killers who loved the location. They used the sharp street angle and underground tunnels that connected the buildings for their “work.” Hatchets were the choice of weapon, along with snickersnees – sword-like knives. It led to the expression “hatchet man.”
Today Nom Wah is a simple restaurant with red vinyl booths and porcelain lucky cats. Autographed photos of celebrities who ate there decorate the yellow walls. Nom Wah offers an assortment of dumplings, including house special pan-fried dumplings, char siu bao (steamed pork buns), and Shanghainese soup dumplings.
Nom Wah isn’t the only dumpling house with a story. According to Tastewise, there are 141,455 restaurants with dumplings on the menu. Tripsavvy reports that the most popular dumpling is ravioli followed by pierogi.
Many stories use dumplings as a main character like The Old Woman Who Lost Her Dumpling, The Ugly Dumpling, and Death by Dumplings (adult mystery). Amazon has a list of three thousand dumpling cookbooks.
China has siu mai (pronounced shoo-my), the U.S. has potstickers, Italy has gnocchi, Poland has pierogi, and Nepal has momo. I have my dough balls (Nov 28, 2022 blog, What’s Your Legacy Soup?).
You can go DIY. Buy an automatic dumpling machine, a set of dumpling molds, and authentic bamboo steamers from Amazon. Different sizes, different shapes, and different flavors – it’s as if Zhang expected the business.
As with any popular food, dumplings have extremes. Although it began as a poor peoples’ dish, dumplings have come a long way. The Golden Gate Restaurant in New York City sells the most expensive – sixteen steamed dumplings stuffed with salmon, pork, veal, and the gland of the deep water horned lantern fish. The fish gives it a blue tint. It will set you back $4,400.
The second most expensive dumpling is the Yumbau Blue Diamond for $517 – a combination of silky chicken, saffron, caterpillar fungi, truffles, and blueberry powder, available only in China.
In 2019, Joey Chestnut (Nathan’s hot dog eating champion) set a new record in Los Angeles. He ate 384 gyoza dumplings in ten minutes. I’m sure there were no Yumbau Blue Diamonds on the table.
For those of you who prefer sweet to savory, there are dessert dumplings like Amish apple dumplings, baked cherry cheesecake wontons, Austrian marillenknödel (apricot dumplings), and pumpkin pie samosas.
As for my favorite, I still love the dough balls in my red potato soup.