Hello my little dumplings.
Such a bizarre term of endearment, but after wrapping hundreds of my own little dumplings by hand this week, I get it. There’s a lot of love and care that goes into making these cute little treats, but that’s part of the fun.
I’ve always been so fascinated by these mythical little packages of food. Growing up, we never made any form of dumpling by hand. Ravioli came in a can, dumplings came frozen in a bag. As a kid I always thought that you needed special machinery to make them. Filling a dumpling was as elusive as filling a Caramilk bar.
So what makes a dumpling? A dumpling can be anything from a lump of starch cooked in a liquid, to a dough-wrapped filling. The key point is that it involves a dough and usually water. Its definition is evident in its etymology. The word ‘dumpling’ comes from the 17th century Norfolk dialect word dump (please hold your giggles to the end). Dump in this sense means to have the consistency of dough, and the diminutive suffix ing means a small amount. What’s interesting is to me is that the Danish word dumpe means to fall suddenly, and if you’ve ever made them, you’ll know that dumplings fall suddenly into the pot.
Isn’t language neat?
Almost every culture has some form of dumpling; from banku (Ghana) to tortellini, perogies, potstickers, and even empanadas. Everyone loves their dumps (again, please hold the giggles). This makes things tricky for pinning down the origins of dumpling. It’s theorized that they evolved independently in various different places in the world, but it’s generally agreed that they arose first in China, which is where we’ll be focusing in today's History Bite.
In the historical record we actually have evidence of filled dumplings, discovered in a tomb from the Shandong province of china that was built in the Spring and Autumn Period dating from 771to 476 BCE. These were Zongzi (above), sticky rice dumplings. Though not made from a dough, they can still fall under the dumpling umbrella, and the fact that they were stuffed makes an even stronger case for China being home of the dumpling.
The dumplings we’ll be looking at are Jiaozi (the same ones we eat today), and have their origin in the Eastern Han era from 25–220 CE. The story goes that the renowned physician Zhang Zhongjing went back to his ancestral village one particularly harsh winter. Upon his arrival, he discovered that there was a shortage of food, and a disease was turning into an epidemic. People were starving and suffering from severe frostbite, especially around their ears. Knowing he had to do something, Zhongjing got right to work. He stewed lamb with medicinal herbs and black pepper. He then shredded it and wrapped portions of the mixture into small bits of dough. He folded the dough in the shape of little ears, and served two to every person in the village with a bit of broth.
Within days, the frostbite was cured, and the epidemic was gone (if only...am I right?). His creation was originally called jiao’er or tender ears. He distributed these little ears from the winter solstice to New Year’s Eve to everyone who had recovered from the illness. His original recipe was added to and changed, and it became custom to enjoy jiaozi (keeping a part of the frostbitten namesake) on the Winter Solstice and New Year’s.
Although this may be the work of some old school marketing, it is likely rooted in some truth. Zhang Zhongjing wrote about the jiaozi in his book Guangya, a third century Chinese dictionary from the Three Kingdoms Era. We also have some cool artifacts uncovered from this era that also point to some serious credibility for China being home of the dumpling. A figurine discovered in a tomb in Chongqing shows a man seated with dumplings on the table in front of him.
It’s stories like these I love finding while writing these History Bites. It reinforces the human element to cooking and makes it more relatable. The medicinal qualities of the jiao’er dumplings aside, it’s something we can all relate to. Coming in from a winter's day, your nose tingling from the frosty wind, cold to the bone, only to discover a hot bowl of soup waiting for you.
A few spoonfuls of soup, and you start peeling off the layers. It’s an immediate fix to the harshness of winter. I can still smell my Mom’s chicken soup with Bisquick dumplings simmering in the Crock Pot if I think hard enough.
If only all of life's challenges could be solved with dumplings and soup.
Until next time.
Image Credit: The Wandering Cloud