In the Beginning, There Were ... Dumplings?

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on August 27, 2013 9:35 am

From Warsaw to Wuhan, people around the world love dumplings. They're tasty little packages that can be made of any grain and stuffed with whatever the locals crave. But where did they come from?

No one knows for sure, but Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., thinks dumplings have been around for a very long time. "Almost without doubt, there are prehistoric dumplings," he says.

Albala envisions the origins of the dumplings like this: To get nutrition from wild grains, hunter-gatherer humans had to cook them. Maybe they'd hollow out a log and fill it with water. Then they'd use hot stones from a fire to get the water boiling. They'd throw in the grain, he says. "And I think it's a very fine line between putting in loose flour or meal, and getting a porridge out of it, or putting in lumps," and getting out dumplings.

Given a choice between gruel and dumplings, Albala says, many people would have chosen the dumpling. "A dumpling, I don't know, it seems like more fun to me," he says.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for dumplings date from over a thousand years ago, says Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine. Archaeologists have found wooden bowls filled with dumplings from eighth century Tang Dynasty graves "that look exactly the same as you'd see served in a restaurant in the area today," Dunlop says.

Dumplings were also around in Renaissance Europe, adds Albala. "The recipes start showing up in the 15th century," he says, often under the heading "gnocchi." "Basically, you just take breadcrumbs, you add flour to it, sometimes cheese, sometimes herbs and egg to bind it."

Today, dumplings exist across Europe and Asia. Many are called manti, or some variation thereof. Most are stuffed with whatever the locals like to eat: In the far west of China, it's mutton, in the Himalayas it might be Yak meat. In fact, says Dunlop, they're all pretty much the same as what the Chinese call wontons and the Italians call tortellini. "So the same methods, the same shapes of wrapped dumpling all the way from Italy, right across Asia to China and even Korea," she says.

It's the endless variation on the theme that make dumplings something to celebrate, says Scott Drewno, the executive chef at The Source restaurant in Washington, D.C.

An NPR dumpling week? It's not enough, he says. There are a thousand different possible types of dumplings: different folds, different fillings, different sauces, he says. "You could do a month if you wanted to."

Chef Drewno's Pork Potstickers with Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce

For Potsticker Filling

3 lb pork butt

1 tbsp cure salt

2 tbsp chopped garlic

1 tbsp chopped ginger

2 tbsp sugar

¼ cup oyster sauce

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp white pepper

¼ cup chopped cilantro

½ cup scallions, thinly sliced

1 tbsp sesame oil

¼ cup dried cherries, reconstituted, drained

¼ cup dried apricots, reconstituted, drained

¼ cup golden raisins, reconstituted, drained

Instructions: Mix all ingredients in bowl. Place in freezer for 20 minutes. Grind in mixer with ¼ inch die. Mix in KitchenAid with paddle attachment.

To Fill Potsickers

Storebought potsticker skins

Egg Yolks

Instructions: Place potsticker skin on table. Brush half with egg yolk. Place small amount of filling in center of skin. Fold skin in half, and pleat along top using thumb and forefinger. Press bottom gently against cutting board, then bend in crescent shape.

Place in boiling water, cook 3 to 4 minutes til fully cooked through. Drain.

Place in hot sauté pan with peanut oil and cook on one side until golden brown. Remove and place on plate with black vinegar dipping sauce (recipe follows). Garnish with carrot strings, beet strings, and daikon strings.

For Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce

4 tsp black vinegar

1/8 cup chili oil

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp soy sauce (Kikkoman or Yamasa )

2 tbsp mushroom soy sauce

¼ cup rice vinegar

2 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

Instructions: Place all ingredients in bowl and mix well.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


All this week, MORNING EDITION will be celebrating the international phenomenon that is the dumpling. Dumplings are tasty, little packages of surprise goodness. They can be a snack in their own, or part of a stew.

We'll be traveling the world, exploring dumplings in different cultures. And to kick off Dumpling Week, we had NPR's Geoff Brumfiel look into what makes dumplings so special.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: When I told Scott Drewno we were going to spend a week talking about dumplings, he got excited.

SCOTT DREWNO: A week - you could do a month, if you wanted to. I mean, there's a thousand different types of dumplings - different folds, different fillings, different sauces.

BRUMFIEL: Drewno is executive chef at the Asian fusion restaurant The Source, in downtown Washington, D.C. He offered to get me into the spirit of things by helping me make some pork dumplings. You start with ground pork; stir in some spices like garlic and ginger.

DREWNO: We just want to continue to mix until the mixture gets a little bit tacky and a little bit sticky.

BRUMFIEL: And put it in a little circle of pastry. Then you fold it in half, pleat it closed with your thumb and forefinger.

DREWNO: You're looking good. Now, all you have to do is, you want to have a flat seat on the dumpling. Put the pleats up, and then just press it down with your fingers.

BRUMFIEL: Oh, like that.

DREWNO: Press it down.


DREWNO: And yours looks great.

BRUMFIEL: Hey, what do you know? It's a dumpling.

DREWNO: It's perfect.

BRUMFIEL: It's the first dumpling of Dumpling Week. Chef Drewno's not the only one who thinks Dumpling Week is a great idea.

KEN ALBALA: I'm very happy you're doing a Dumpling Week. That's all I can say. (Laughing) It takes great insight and guts to do a Dumpling Week.


BRUMFIEL: Ken Albala is a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. He admits some people don't get the dumpling.

ALBALA: In fact, I had a message from a friend this morning who said, I'm going to be in Warsaw, and is there anything to eat there apart from dumplings? Someone, please help me.

BRUMFIEL: But Albala says that dumplings are actually an important part of human history.

ALBALA: Almost without doubt, there are prehistoric dumplings.

BRUMFIEL: As soon as humans got their hands on grain, they had to cook it.

ALBALA: The way they would do it is by hollowing out a log.

BRUMFIEL: They'd fill it with water, put in a couple of super hot rocks from the fire. The rocks get the water boiling.

ALBALA: And then you can throw anything in. And I think it's a very fine line between putting in loose flour or meal, and having a kind of porridge out of it. Or putting in lumps...

BRUMFIEL: And getting dumplings out of it. Given a choice between gruel and dumplings...

ALBALA: A dumpling - I don't know. It's more - it seems like more fun to me. (Laughing) Maybe that's it.

BRUMFIEL: OK, so that's all a little speculative. But dumplings definitely have been around for a long time. Fuchsia Dunlop is a food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine. When archeologists in the northwest of China opened graves from the eighth century Tang Dynasty...

FUCHSIA DUNLOP: They excavated a wooden bowl filled with dumplings that look exactly the same as those that you'd find served in a restaurant in the area today. (Laughing)

BRUMFIEL: And today, the dumpling is king in China. Dunlop knows of one restaurant that serves more than 300 kinds.

DUNLOP: And they're shaped like pumpkins and walnuts and rabbits and chickens - all different shapes and different fillings, different-colored skins, and so on.

BRUMFIEL: Dumplings also change as they're adopted by different cultures with different diets. Take one common Chinese dumpling - the wanton.

DUNLOP: There are sort of versions going right across central Asia. And then if you go right across to Italy, you find the same thing, called a tortellini. So the same methods, the same shapes of wrapped dumpling; all the way from Italy, right across Asia to China and even Korea.

BRUMFIEL: Back at The Source in Washington D.C., we've boiled up our pork dumplings. And now, chef Scott Drewno is finishing them off in the frying pan.


DREWNO: To me, you know, if I was stranded on a desert island and I could only eat one thing, it would be a pork dumpling.


DREWNO: GBD: golden brown and delicious.

BRUMFIEL: They are delicious. And at the end of the day, that's what makes dumplings so popular in so many places. They're kind of addictive.

Geoff, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.