Every culture has a dumpling.
It's a statement both frustratingly cliché and profoundly true. A universally beloved way to extend inexpensive ingredients—whether cheap cuts of meat, grains or vegetables—with flour and water, dumplings are a comfort food beloved around the world. "It's the perfect portable snack food, so why shouldn't it be global?" Sohui Kim of The Good Fork in Brooklyn asks.
For chefs raised on dumplings, the little pockets offer a familiar avenue to experiment with new flavors or techniques, from stuffing them with foie gras, as Anita Lo does at Manhattan's Annisa, or transforming the wrappers into a pretzel-like shell, like Dale Talde does in Brooklyn. The little purses are also a way to draw diners into an unfamiliar cuisine: They're "something that you can offer as an olive branch to someone who is maybe a little skeptical," Bonnie Morales, the chef at Portland's modern Russian restaurant Kachka, says of her pelmeni.
Chefs like these, and a handful of others, have redefined dumplings, elevating them from comfort food to culinary icons. In turn, they have shaped these chefs' careers, turning neighborhood restaurants into destinations. To kick off dumpling week (yes, stay tuned for dumpling recipes, stories and stats), we are looking back and seeking out the tales behind these dumpling rock stars.
Anita Lo's Foie Gras Soup Dumplings
Annisa, New York City
As Lo prepares to close her iconic 17-year-old restaurant, Annisa, later this spring, one of only three dishes that she's served since opening will disappear along with the tables: foie gras soup dumplings. The recipe, which she initially served to the restaurant's first sommelier in her home before opening the restaurant, draws on her parents' backgrounds. Her father was from Shanghai, often considered the birthplace of soup dumplings. Meanwhile, the filling of foie gras and jicama is joined by a broth inspired by one her mother would make with shiitake mushrooms, soy, star anise and cinnamon. The dumplings have become synonymous with the restaurant. "People come in just for that….People have it [to start] and then have it again for dessert," she says.
Bonnie Morales's Pelmeni
Kachka, Portland, Oregon
The pelmeni, or Siberian dumplings stuffed with pork, beef, veal and onions at Bonnie and Israel Morales's contemporary Russian restaurant are frozen. And Bonnie, the chef, says that's precisely the way it should be. "They're an original frozen food," she says. Historically, "people would make them in large batches and throw them into the snow to freeze them [and] hunters would take sacks of them and boil them over a fire."
She's kept the tradition alive by freezing the dumplings for a day before serving them. "It feels arbitrary, but freezing helps make sure the dough doesn't overcook," she adds. When they're ready to serve, she tosses them with butter and smetana, a Russian sour cream, or dunks them into a pool of "fancy broth," a stock made from boiled pig's head fortified with beef and veal. On an average evening, she'll serve nearly 800 of them.
Chris Santos's French Onion Soup Dumplings
The Stanton Social, New York City
Chris Santos took a big risk with his French onion soup dumplings—little, savory morsels baked in a small dish and topped with melted cheese (see the recipe)—when he opened The Stanton Social in 2005. "I didn't think people were going to get it or like it at all," he says. He was decidedly wrong. When asked how many the kitchen has made, he explains: "We probably sell a thousand pieces a night." (For the record, after 12 years, that's around 4,380,000 dumplings.)
The idea evolved from his commitment to serving food that the table could share—something that's common now, but was less so then. Knowing that soup is hard to split between diners, Chinese soup dumplings came to mind. After toying with different soups, he settled on the best part of French onion soup: the first few bites, or, as he says, "when you still have crispy croutons and cheese." The dumplings became so popular, he adds: "They'll be with me for the rest of my life."
Sohui Kim's Pork and Chive Dumplings
The Good Fork, Brooklyn, New York
Kim remembers getting a call from the Food Network over a decade ago. A producer said they were working on a segment about appetizers, and asked if she could demonstrate how to make her signature pork, garlic-chive and tofu dumplings, which she says are a hybrid of Korean mandu, Chinese dumplings and Japanese gyoza. They also asked her to host a party. "My brother was like, 'It sounds suspiciously like a throwdown,'" she recalls. "I had no idea what that was."
After a bit of research, she was prepared for Bobby Flay. "We set up a party...and boom! He shows up with his really clear skin and he challenges me," she says. Thankfully, she won. After the show aired, the restaurant had to increase production five-fold and most of that fell on Kim. "I used to make every single dumpling because I didn't like how someone folded it."
Ryan Lachaine's Cheddar and Potato Pierogies
Riel, Houston, Texas
"I didn't just want to throw a bowl of pierogies on the menu," Ryan Lachaine, who opened Riel, a Ukrainian-meets-Canadian restaurant, earlier this winter, says. So instead, he paired his grandmother and mother's potato-cheddar pierogies with a hanger steak to create a play on steak and potatoes. He concedes that he did tweak the recipe to make it a bit easier. "All dumplings are labor intensive," he says. And though he tried to avoid serving just a bowl of pierogies, he'll oblige when customers who are already fans of the dumplings ask.
Dale Talde's Pretzel Dumplings
Talde, Brooklyn, New York
While prepping for family meal in the kitchen at Buddakan in 2011, Talde saw another cook make pretzels for the first time. "I saw him dip [them] in water, brush and bake them," Talde says. He grabbed some pot stickers and followed suit. What became his signature dumplings—pork and chive-filled numbers with a chewy and salty exterior—helped launch his hit restaurant, Talde, a year later.
While Talde was raised on dumplings made by his Filipino mother, these are nothing like those. Still, they are nostalgic for him. On his first trip to New York, he met up with a friend in the Meatpacking District. Walking down the cobblestone streets, he recalls, "the first thing you smell are those pretzel and hot dog carts….For me it's nostalgic. It's part of my cooking fabric and experience."
April Bloomfield's Ricotta Gnudi
The Spotted Pig, New York City
April Bloomfield's sheep's milk ricotta dumplings, which former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni once described as worth the two-hour wait that was de rigueur at The Spotted Pig, helped plant the restaurant as a staple of the New York dining scene. But the dumplings pre-date Bloomfield's days in the city. "I first came across gnudi when I went on a trip to Italy with The River Café in London back in 2001," she says. Enthralled by their lightness, she worked to recreate them for the restaurant.
A few years later, when she opened in New York, she put them on the menu but wasn't sure they would take off. "At the end of the day, you make a dish because it resonates with you and hits the spot, so you cross your fingers and hope that the majority of people think or feel the same way. Thank god they love these fluffy little clouds," she says. And they do.
Hannah and Marian Cheng's Chicken and Zucchini Dumplings
Mimi Cheng's, New York City
"Where we grew up, everyone had their own garden," Hannah Cheng, one part of the sister duo behind Manhattan dumpling destination Mimi Cheng's, says. One year, faced with a bumper crop of zucchini, a friend of the family gifted the Chengs with a large box of the vegetable. "She didn't know what to do with it, so she started shredding it," Cheng says of her mother. It ended up in a batch of Taiwanese dumplings, and the rest is history.
At the restaurant, zucchini and chicken dumplings come with a secret sauce, also courtesy of the Cheng sisters' mother. "It almost started off as a joke," Cheng says. The sauce was so good, her mother refused to tell anyone what was in it. Two weeks before the restaurant opened, "[Mom] was on her way to Taiwan," she recalls. "I said, 'Mom, are you serious? We're opening the restaurant, the joke's over." Ultimately, Cheng's mother parted with the recipe for the umami-rich and subtly spicy sauce.
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