Hard to say what exactly it is about dumplings, but everybody seems to love these wet-cooked food parcels-each a soft, tender wrap of dough (or other starchy product such as cornmeal or rice), containing within it a filling that only reveals itself when bitten into, releasing an exciting squish of flavor and a reminder that the world is truly a place of miracles.
Sometimes these steamy pleasures are filled with meat, sometimes with fish, vegetables or unimaginably exotic substances you mightn’t touch had they not arrived clothed. And sometimes, just for the fun of it, they are filled merely with themselves. Maybe what pleases us is the excitement of unraveling a mystery, or maybe it is renewed recognition that the plainest exteriors often hide the greatest treasures.
And, now, thanks to a fine new book, you can make these endearing gastronomic geodes in your kitchen. The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide (Morrow, 2009) is a hefty 424-page introduction to the world of Chinese shumai, of caldo de bolas from Ecuador, Russian pelmeni, mochi from Japan and endless wonders from Nigeria, Mexico, Greece, Tibet, Italy and points beyond.
The authors are Wai Hon Chu, Hong Kong-born but a New Yorker through and through-CUNY graduate, lives in Chinatown and teaches around town, including the Bowery Culinary Institute at Whole Foods-and Connie Lovatt, a private professional chef. Their book, arranged seasonally, is richly instructional. A superb introduction contains some 60 pages on ingredients and techniques and even has an illustrated glossary of folding and sealing methods. Throughout the book are bits and pieces of cultural background on the particular food and useful serving suggestions. Many of these dumplings are eaten in soups and stews, so as a bonus you get a variety of recipes in which to float your dumplings or, in some cases, to dunk them.
For New Yorkers, The Dumpling is not only a cookbook but a reminder that most of these international treasures are available right in our own backyards. While you might want to travel the world to seek out knedliky in the Czech Republic, kroppkakor in Sweden or ashak in Afghanistan, the delightful fact is that, with no more travel than a couple of subway forays, you can find and consume all these and many, many more without leaving town. We are among the few places in the world where you can pursue them. London, maybe, but, well, you already have your Metrocard, so why bother?
So, you’ve got a happy choice. Using this excellent new book, study up, fling open your door and step out to sample this delightful, richly varied fare. Or stay at home, prop up your copy of The Dumpling, invite in a few friends and go traveling in your own kitchen.
Photo courtesy of William Morrow Cookbooks.