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3 july 2015

Dumplings, like pies, pancakes, and puddings, are not easy to define, but we know them when we see them.

Barbara Gallani, in her global history of dumplings, defines them as lumps of dough, filled or unfilled, that are then boiled or steamed. (Baking would make them pies if filled or puddings if unfilled, I suppose. Maybe this definitional stuff is easier than I thought.)

By Gallani's taxonomy, ravioli and tamales count as dumplings, associations that make sense but that I would not have made before reading her book. With ravioli, at least, I should have made the connection. In key respects, ravioli are very much like wontons. But my primal experience of ravioli was not with elegant thin packages dipped into boiling water till just al dente. I learned ravioli via Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee, their unidentifiable grey glutinous filling identical in texture to their white glutinous wrappers, as far from wontons as technology could make them.

Nor did I grow up in a dumpling culture. Gallani notes the global dominance of dumplings, but my family foodways were based on having separate items on your plate: a minute steak, a potato, and individual wax beans from the can. The American Midwest is stereotypically a kind of dumpling heaven, what with all the kreplach and pierogis, but we never partook. And I grew up well outside the chicken-and-dumplings belt. I never went in for dumplings in a big way till I moved to New York and started frequenting dim sum palaces. Sammy's Noodle Shop on Sixth Avenue is my idea of a dumpling. They may not be refined but they are plentiful and filling.

Gallani speculates on the role of Marco Polo and other Silk Roaders in a possible dumpling exchange between China and Italy. It's a tantalizing connection. Pasta in general has long been a thread connecting the far east and the Mediterranean, and the great dumplings of these far-apart cultures are pasta-based. Dumplings may be the original pan-Eurasian food style.

But they're more last-resort than shining frontier. At one extreme, dumplings seem to be a recourse against waste. Extra dough or batter goes in the pot. If the pot is on the stove, it floats to the top in the form of a Norfolk dumpling. If the pot is in the stove, it crisps away alongside the roast as a Yorkshire pudding. Both these regional delights seem to imply that in London, one doesn't have to make do with these quickie stodge-bombs.

I ate dumplings on several stops in a trip from Brandenburg to Bohemia to Bavaria this past spring. These weren't like ravioli or wontons, these were tennis-ball-sized lumps of bread mashed up with bacon and onion, supplying about three times my daily recommended allowance of starch. They were undeniably comforting if somewhat indigestible.

Naturally I couldn't wait to make some for myself, and fortunately Gallani includes a recipe for bread-dumplings. Italian in origin (they're called canederli), these are made by soaking bread in egg and milk, mixing in sautéd onion and bacon, and then binding with flour, rolling into balls, and simmering in stock. The recipe calls for parsley and nutmeg, but to produce a more Czech effect I substituted marjoram and caraway.

The problem any American cook faces with bread-based recipes, of course, is that American bread never goes stale. I bought days-old bread off the sale rack, but it was still the consistency of marshmallow. So the quantity of milk was too great, and I compensated by increasing the flour, and you know how that goes: you keep adding more stuff to balance till you have enough dumpling dough to feed a battalion. Just be warned, and cut the quantity of milk to start with before halving the recipe altogether. I will report, however, that once I stopped adding ingredients and finally simmered the dumplings, they were a darn close facsimile of the ones I'd enjoyed in the Czech Republic. I served them with a quick goulash of beef scraps, more onion, and lots of paprika (thickened with still more flour).

At some point along the transmutation of flour into dough into bread into dough into bread again, you wonder why somebody didn't just save a few steps and eat their goulash with bread. In fact, in a tiny pub in the Czech town of Vimperk, I did have goulash with a wonderful gummy bread of dumpling-like consistency. Foodstuffs are truly a continuum, not a set of categories.

Gallani, Barbara. Dumplings: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.