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An Abbreviated Guide to Dumplings from Around the World

Illustrations By : Jenna Hartzell

One of my most lucid travel memories revolves around ravioli — a ravioli revolution, if you will. My husband and I had been working on a farm in Italy in the midst of an outrageously steamy, boggy summer. In gratitude at the end of our stay, the farmer and his wife prepared us dinner, including multiple courses and liters of white wine on the patio. The meal was an unexpected indulgence after weeks of hard work.

During the pasta course, our hosts presented a platter of nondescript ravioli. When our forks cut into the fresh pasta, we discovered a purée of beets and ricotta that glowed neon pink inside. It was like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction that shone when opened: a surprise, a secret.

Until that moment, I’d always known pasta to be heavy and incongruous with a hot day, but those ravioli tasted as light as a silk scarf. I have since tried to replicate them in my stateside kitchen with negligible success. Fortunately the memory remains.

Dumplings like ravioli have this effect on eaters the world over, from Polish pierogi to Chinese jiaozi, Indian samosa to American apple dumplings. Indeed, nearly every culture has a dish that tucks a bit of sweet or savory filling into dough that’s baked, fried, steamed or boiled. No matter their provenance, dumplings are always a precious little gift to unwrap and savor. (Is it any wonder, then, that we use dumpling as a term of endearment? I’m reminded of my 8-year-old daughter, whose cheeks still resemble the tender curvature of a steamed bao. I know they won’t for long, though. Every time I brush her hair away from those delicious cheeks, I try to remember just how quickly time flies.)

For those of us who keep our passports at the ready, hawkishly watching airfares and savoring moments spent on foreign soil, having to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has felt unnatural at best. We can travel, however, through our taste buds.

What follows is a mini-guide to dumplings from six of our world’s seven continents. Seek these out in cookbooks and restaurants, and pretend you’re on a balcony in Addis Ababa, Lima or Brisbane. These dumplings may just trick you into a travel state of mind.

CHINA : Baozi

Often called bao, baozi are yeasted buns wrapped around filling like pork belly, chicken and peanuts, tofu, cabbage and other delectable mixtures. Like so many of their international counterparts, these dumplings are casual cuisine, typically enjoyed from a street food stall or in the comfort of home. Baozi are thought to have military origins: In the third century, a military strategist named Zhuge Liang created the first baozi as an offering to the gods, which he then shared with soldiers who were sick.

LATIN AMERICA: Empanada

Commonly filled with ground meat, veggies and spices, empanadas are crescent-shaped fried or baked savory pastries that can be found throughout South America. Their origins are in Galicia, Spain, and a version of the flaky, handheld dish can be found nearly anywhere colonized by Spain, including Sicily and the Philippines. 

POLAND: Pierogi

Filled with cabbage, potatoes, cheese or mushrooms and sealed in a pasta-like wrapper, pierogi can be boiled or fried, not unlike Chinese jiaozi dumplings (or gyoza, in Japan). In fact, many believe that jiaozi traveled west with the Mongols through Russia, eventually landing — and flourishing — in Poland.

ETHIOPIA: Sambusas

Traditionally filled with meat, green lentils and the Ethiopian spice blend called berbere, sambusas are triangular pastries that originally derive from the Middle East. (In fact, they’re first mentioned rather romantically in a 9th-century Persian poem.) As the Turks invaded neighboring regions, the sambusaj traveled down throughout Africa, where each local area put its own special stamp on the dish. (And yes, the Turks also traveled to the Indian subcontinent, where a sambusa became a samosa.)

AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND: Pasties

Handheld meat pies called pasties became the preferred, packable lunch for tin miners in Cornwall, England, up until the mid-19th century. When that industry collapsed, many miners sought work elsewhere throughout the British Empire, including the Antipodes. Today, Aussie and Kiwi meat pies have a life and flavor all their own, and are sold just about everywhere, from fine dining restaurants to gas stations.

UNITED STATES: Apple dumplings

These treats are made from whole, cored, peeled apples, stuffed with dried fruits, spices and nuts, wrapped in shortcrust, then baked. Though the first apple dumplings are recorded in 18th-century England, they’ve become an iconic American dessert, particularly in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. There, it’s common to pour milk over an apple dumpling for breakfast — an indulgent way to start the day.

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