A Short History of Dumplings

May 28, 2021
Written by
Michele Koh Morollo

A popular snack in many parts of the world, dumplings are also a convenient meal for one and a real crowd pleaser at parties and family gatherings. When most of us think of dumplings, it’s usually Chinese jiaozi or dim sum that come to mind. But dumplings are in fact any type of savory dish made with meat, vegetable or cheese fillings wrapped in dough. Dumplings therefore include dishes like Italian raviolis and tortellinis, Indian samosas, Polish pirogis, Nepalese momos, Turkish mantis, and empanadas from South America.

Dumplings have been around for a long time in the cuisines of many different cultures. The first dumpling recipe appeared in a Roman cookery manuscript called Apicius, which was assumed to have been written sometime in around A.D. 400, and archeologists have found evidence of dumplings being eaten in China during the Tang dynasty and in Switzerland as far back as 3,600 B.C..

In her article for the History Channel, journalist Stephanie Butler explains that in all likelihood, in most places, dumplings were invented to maximize usage of meat to feed a larger number of 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,” she writes.

While these tasty morsels might have been invented out of necessity, today, most of us are thankful that dumplings continue to be a part of the global cuisines we love. Chopped or minced meats are commonly used in many dumpling recipes, but for flexitarians and vegetarians looking for plant-based dumpling alternatives, Arlene offers a variety of delicious Asian and Middle Eastern options.

Jiaozi

Jiaozis, which mean “tender ears” in Mandarin are crescent-shaped dumplings filled with minced meat or vegetables and served boiled or fried. Legend has it that the jiaozi was invented by a Chinese physician named Zhang Zhongjian during the Han Dynasty. During a particularly bitter winter, Zhang returned to his home village after his travels and found many of his friends and family suffering from frostbite around their ears. 

Chinese physicians at that time believed that eating foods that looked like body parts would heal the part of the body that the food resembled. So Zhang cooked some mutton with herbs, wrapped them in bits of dough and folded them so they looked like ears, assuming they would warm frostbitten-ears. Arlene makes no such promises, but their jiaozi-style Vegetable Dumpling with Szechuan Sauce will certainly warm the bellies of flexitarians and vegetarians seeking plant-based Chinese dumplings.

Gyoza

Gyozas – a side dish served in Japanese ramen eateries – are a more recent adaptation of the jiaozi. During the Second World War, Japanese soldiers loved Chinese dumplings so much that when they returned to home, they made their own version of jiaozi with more finely chopped meat and a thinner dumpling wrapper. While pan-fried jiaozis and gyozas have much in common, the gyoza has a chewier texture and different flavor profile that sets it apart from its Chinese cousin. For those on a meat-less diet, Arlene offers a variety of meatless gyozas – Green Bean Gyoza, Chili Gyoza and Truffle and Cabbage Gyozas that are delicious and easy to prepare.

Dim Sum

Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal that’s the highlight of Hong Kong and Guangzhou cuisine. Meaning “touch the heart” in Cantonese – dim sum consists of small portions of dumplings and other savory and sweet snacks served in bamboo steamers and accompanied by Chinese tea. Dim sum was conceived by the owners of teahouses along China’s Silk Road, who began serving bite-sized portions of food to their guests to entice them to linger longer and buy more tea. Typically served as brunch, well-loved dim sum staples include siew mai – a type of cup-shaped pork and mushroom dumpling, and har gao – a shrimp dumpling ensconced in a clear, glossy flour wrapper. If you’re craving dim sum but have given up meat and seafood, Arlene’s plant-based siew mai and vegetable dumplings are great alternatives to the meat and shrimp varieties commonly served at dim sum restaurants.

Kibbeh

Made with cracked bulgar wheat, ground meat, onions and spices, kibbeh is a signature Middle Eastern dish that originated in the part of the Levantine region that’s now home to the countries of Syria and Lebanon. This delicious torpedo-shaped dumpling gets its name from the Arabic word “kubbah”, which means “ball” and can be served raw – like a ball of tartare – fried or baked. Popular in Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Turkey, and considered a national dish of Syria and Lebanon, kibbeh is traditionally made with lamb or camel meat. But if you’re not a fan of gamey meats, Arlene’s plant-based kibbeh delivers all the exotic flavors of the Middle East in a perfectly-made, scrumptious, meatless parcel.


Sambousek

Popular in the Middle East and often served as part of a Mezze platter, sambousek is a petite pastry that’s typically filled with meat or cheese, onions, spices and herbs. Though historians aren’t certain about this dumpling’s origin, they’ve found evidence of the sambousek’s existence since Babylonian times. Some scholars believe that traders from Persia introduced sambousek to India sometime around the 13th or 14th century, and they suspect that it might very well be the predecessor of the Indian samosa. If you’re looking for meatless version of this treat, try Arlene’s satisfying sambousek.

Dumplings may have had humbling beginnings, but their presence all across the world is a clear sign of their enduring popularity. 


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