From Italian ravioli, to Polish piroshky, to Chinese pot stickers, the humble dumpling is beloved by eaters around the world. Truly a universal food, you’d be hard pressed to find a cultural cuisine that doesn’t include dumplings in some form, be it stuffed or boiled. Ghanaians make fufu from pounded cassava flour, while Nepali diners enjoy momo and Brazilians eat empanadas. Dumplings are also an ancient food. Recipes for them appear in Roman texts, and it’s certain that Chinese dumplings are even older. This week Hungry History tackles the extensive, international and delicious history of the dumpling.
Just like bread, dumplings probably arose independently in several cuisines. And in all likelihood they were invented as a way to stretch a small amount of meat to feed more people. A pound of pork or beef might not be enough for a family of four, but mix it with some cabbage and onions and wrap it in dough and it’s a perfectly sufficient meal.
The first known recipes for dumplings appear in Apicius, a Roman cookery text, and they still sound delicious. One is simply roasted pheasant, chopped fine and mixed with fat, salt and pepper and moistened with broth, then poached in seasoned water. Simple boiled dumplings like these are still popular around Europe: In Austria, stale bread is soaked in milk and mixed with other leftover ingredients to form dumplings, while German spaatzle is just a flour dough pushed through a sieve directly into boiling water.
Filled dumplings were probably a later development in Europe, but Chinese cooks have enjoyed a version known as iiaozi for more than 1,800 years. According to legend, Chinese stuffed dumplings were invented during the Han Dynasty by a man named Zhang Zhongjian. The event occurred when Zhang returned to his ancestral village during the winter, after a long absence. He noticed that many of his fellow citizens were suffering from frostbite, particularly around their ears. As a way to solve this problem, Zhang cooked up a batch of mutton, chili and healing herbs and wrapped them in scraps of dough. He folded the dumplings to look like little ears, boiled them and handed them out to his afflicted neighbors. Who knows if they cured frostbite, but the villagers loved the taste of Zhang’s creation so much that they kept making the dumplings long after spring began.