Dumplings are cooked pieces of dough.
Some are pure dough, some have fillings in the centre. In the West, wheat flour is the main starch; in Asia, rice flour. Dumplings are sometimes simmered in water, sometimes simmered in a broth, sometimes steamed, sometimes "steam fried." And occasionally, baked. But, generally, they are cooked in a "wet" fashion, through steaming or simmering.
Dough BallsNorth American and English style dumplings are basically flour, water, some fat, a bit of salt and some leavener such as baking powder. Ideally, they should be light and fluffy.
German ones are made with raw grated potato, and come out very large and grey. Very small things like German spatzle are also referred to as dumplings.
They were meant to be a cheap addition to a dish that would help fill people up, but despite their purpose, they often end up being what people look forward to most in their soup or stew, and there's never enough of them. You need a large surface area on the top of your soup, stew or boiled dinner to cook enough for the demand.
Some people distinguish between the "rolled" and "dropped" type.
- Drop dumplings: dough or batter is dropped a tablespoon or so at a time straight from the spoon into the soup;
- Rolled dumplings: dough is rolled out, cut into rectangular strips, and dropped into a simmering liquid.
A third type, however, has the dough just formed into balls by hand, and then dropped into the soup.
Filled DumplingsThese types of Dumplings have fillings in their centres.
The filling can be pressed into the centre of a ball of dough, or a piece dough can be rolled or flatted out, and then folded up around the filling and sealed.
Debates rage as to whether to classify ravioli as a dumpling or pasta.
Pierogi are also a type of dumpling, but if the pierogi is baked, Russian style, and called a piroshki, is it still a dumpling? One might be inclined to say no, but then, apple dumplings are usually baked.
Chinese and Japanese DumplingsDumplings in Asia are more elaborate than in the West.
Chinese Dumplings in particular are a lot more work, but are often a social occasion for everyone pitching in to help. And, anyone Chinese would scandalized to arrive at a dim sum and find there were no dumplings.
The outside layer of these Dumplings can be sticky rice pressed together, then tied up in a leaf wrapper to hold it all together, or a thin dough wrapper, with the wrapper made from any kind of starch, with wheat and rice being the most common.
Items called "potstickers", that are steam-fried, are also dumplings, that are both crisp and tender. Some people also class won ton as a dumpling, while others think of it as pasta.
Dumplings in China are served at many special times of the year. Different kinds are made for different festivals.
Literature & Lore
Some speculate it may have come from an older German word for damp, "dump", but that speculation possibly comes from a misunderstanding of the German word "dämpfen", which means to lower or calm down, rather than "make moist".
Besides, there is a linguistic possiblity closer to home: the Middle English word "dumpen", meaning to "drop". Or, the Dutch almost-sound alike word, "dompelen", meaning to dip or plunge something, usually in a liquid.
In 1890, a popular alliteration phrase in North America was "dollars to doughnuts", as in "I'll betcha dollars to doughnuts...". Before that, one variation of the phrase had been "dollars to dumplings". (Source: "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982.)
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-- Charles Gundel (Hungarian restaurateur). Quoted in: Sara Dickerman. Eat Your Words. Slate Magazine. 29 April 2003.