A short history of dumplings

Flour on my fingers, I crimp your tiny pillows

of plum and cheese, watch them bob

and float in the salty water, and rescue them

again and again.

Karen Kovacik, “Making pierogi”

Portuguese Gravity | Unsplash

Dumplings are omnipresent. Pretty much every culture has their own special kind of dumpling and sometimes even more than one.  In Italy you have Ravioli and Tortellini, in Poland Pierogi, in Germany Maultaschen, in Turkey Manti and the list goes on and on. Those tasty little pillows have somehow wormed their way into our hearts. But where did they come from and why do we love them so much?

According to a Chinese legend stuffed dumplings were invented by a pharmacologist, physician, inventor and writer named Zhang Zhongjian during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), as the legend says, in the cruel, hard winter when Zhang Zhongjian returned to his ancestral village where many of the inhabitants were suffering from the cold. It caused frostbite, especially around the ears. Zhan Zhongjian wanted to help his fellow citizens with his medical knowledge and cooked mutton, chili and other herbs with healing qualities. Then he wrapped them in scraps of dough and folded them to look like little ears. After boiling them again, so that they could warm the ears of the from frostbite suffering villagers, he handed them out. This is how the legend was passed on. It is not told if the dumplings actually helped with the frostbite, but apparently some had tried eating them and loved the taste, since they kept making the dumplings until long after spring began.

While this legend is quite a nice story, it has no scientific evidence, of course. The first proof of the invention of dumplings was discovered in an ancient tomb in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Archaeologists were able to excavate perfectly preserved dumplings, which are dated back over 1700 years ago! Seems like humanity has been enjoying dumplings for a long time already. There are also some ancient Chinese poems which indicate that their history with dumplings goes back even further than that.

The first known recipe for dumplings is not from Asia though. The text appears in a roman cookbook the “Apicius: Caelii Apicii De Opsoniis et Condimentis Sive Arte Coquinaria Libri X” and the final version most likely goes back to the third or fourth century. Archaeologists believe it was not only written down by one person, as the given name of the author Aspicius suggests, but rather collected over the years and maybe even compiled to honour a roman cook. Whoever wrote the recipe down – they had taste. It deliciously describes dumplings made of roasted pheasant, chopped fine and with pepper.

Despite the long history of dumplings, the word itself only goes back to the 17th century. In an English text from 1600 it was noted that the word “dumpling” most likely goes back to the old German noun “dump”, which means as much as “lump”.

And as heart-warming as the story about Zhang Zhonhjiang and the beginning of dumplings is, it is more likely that they were simultaneously invented in different regions as a way to stretch food. Since a bit of meat was very likely not enough for a family, they could use it with cabbage and onions, wrap it in dough and make it go a long way.

So if we most likely started to make dumplings because they were a good way to make food last longer, why do we continue to make them today, even in environments where there is more than enough food?

For me, dumplings are a dish of endless creativity and adaptability. Depending on what you have on hand, the dough can be made out of potatoes, flour, rice – and those are just examples, the possibilities are endless. Do you have a sweet tooth, or do you rather prefer hearty meals? Doesn’t matter because a dumpling can do both! Filled with meat, vegetables, fruit or even chocolate, what do you want more? They also come in every kind of shape, colour or texture and you can eat them just like that or with some side dishes – in case you are feeling fancy.

Those small edible packages convey warmth, comfort and happiness and you know what the best is? They are not even that hard to make and since you can use a wide variety of ingredients, they can be very affordable. And if you don’t have time to make them yourself – store-bought ones are fine as well and an easy-quick meal.

As my colleague Ola said: „Dumplings are the best thing in the world.”

Angelina Berndt

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