When I set out to write the Asian Dumplings cookbook, I was thrilled by the notion of obsessing day and night about one of my favorite foods. I researched by perusing my cookbook library, going to bookstores, surfing the Web, surveying friends, and eating at dumpling restaurants. You may be laughing at the ridiculously charmed life I lead but there is a higher purpose. It became evident quite soon that defining Asian dumplings wasn’t going to be easy. For example, above is a photo Malaysian cucur badak filled with lemongrass, coconut and dried shrimp. A chef in Kuala Lumpur told me to seek them out after I told him about my book research. Are they an Asian dumpling?
What is Asia?
We think we know what Asia is, but most people don’t even include India in the mix and focus only on China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. India is South Asia. And what about the Central Asian cultures of discussed in seminal food publications such as Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Beyond the Great Wall?I’d long been fascinated by the Uighurs of Central Asia (and it’s not simply because of their uncommon name) but because their culture is a historic link between the Middle East and Asia. In the fabulous My Bombay Kitchen, Niloufer King illuminates how Persian and Indian culinary traditions come together in Bombay in delicious Parsi preparations. What about the Middle East versus the Far East? Who came up with those terms and why are they significant?
Continents are large land masses and Asia can be humongous, depending on your definition. The map above from Wikipedia shows Asia to be a vast swathe of land. Indeed, though the Middle East, Turkey, the Central Asian republics, and most of Russia may be considered as part of Asia, most people think of Asia as comprising three subregions: East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
Given that colloquial understanding, I decided to focus the recipe collection in Asian Dumplings on preparations from those areas. Plus, many people are familiar with Cantonese dim sum and Chinese dumplings begot many others throughout Asia. This website would allow me to expand the collection and take cooks on new adventures into other lesser-known parts of Asia.
What are Asian dumplings?
That was the other issue. I never ran across an Asian definition for dumplings. Turns out that the European definition wasn’t firm either. In the early part of seventeenth century when the European definition of dumplings came to be, it denoted “a small and usually globular mass of boiled or steamed dough” (Oxford Companion to Food, 1999). Current definitions of dumplings characterize them as cooked pieces of leavened dough, doughy morsels containing savory meat-and-cheese mixtures, and baked desserts comprised of fruit encased by dough. In The Dumpling Cookbook, Maria Polushkin struggles to define the term and concludes that “… a dumpling must be ‘immersed’ or ‘dumped’ into a cooking medium—be it water, soup, hot fat, or even steam.”
Many English speakers categorize Asian-filled pastas such as pot stickers and wontons as dumplings but in actuality, ‘dumpling’ does not exist in the Asian culinary framework. Writing in the third century, Chinese poet Shu Xi, considered one of the most learned men of his day, described a number of Chinese foods made from wheat as being members of the bǐng family. In “Rhapsody on Bǐng,” Shu Xi lumped filled dumplings, stuffed buns, baked and fried breads, and noodles in that one category of food without discrimination subtle differences. Wheat-flour milling technology had been introduced to China from western Asia (now the Middle East) and at the time of Shu Xi’s composition, meat-filled morsels were prepared in other parts of Asia so the Chinese were adopters, not inventors. The point here is that there is a huge range of what may and perhaps should be called an
Asian dumpling. The European-ascribed idea of an Asian dumpling as a type of filled pasta is extremely limiting and inaccurate.
Along the same vein as Shu Xi, acclaimed Chinese cookbook author Irene Kuo described potstickers, siu mai, wontons, egg rolls, buns, and the like as “dough stuffs” in her classic 1977 work, The Key to Chinese Cooking. In the Vietnamese repertoire, such foods belong in the broad category of bánh, which includes savory and sweet foods made with flour, starches, and legumes (e.g., cakes, dumplings, cookies, fritters, crepes, etc.). Similarly, kuih is the Malay term attached to a vast category of savory and sweet cakes, pastries and dumplings. An Indian vada can be described as a fritter, doughnut, cake, or dumpling. Ask an Asian cook what an Asian dumpling is and the answer won’t be forthcoming. It’s hard to nail down.
However, ambiguity aside, all dumplings share certain characteristics. They are simple foods with few social pretensions. On occasion they feature meat or seafood, but for the most part, they involve dough made from staple grains, legumes, or vegetable along with basic ingredients such as water, salt, and leaven. It is the humble nature of dumplings that steals people’s hearts.
After spending much time pondering, researching, and preparing Asian dumplings, I can conclude this:
For the purposes of the Asian Dumplings cookbook I define the little delectable morsels as:
Asian dumplings include savory and sweet dishes that that are either made from balls of dough or are small parcels of food encased in pastry, dough, batter, or leaves.
As you can imagine, there are endless possibilities to explore. Sit back, read, cook, and enjoy.