Cultures around the world have seemed to have similar ideas when it comes to food, but perhaps none is more ubiquitous (or more delicious) than the ever-popular stuffed staple food. Generally known as a dumpling, it appears around the world under different names, each version tastier than the last. The Chinese have baozi (stuffed steamed buns) and jiaozi (steamed dumpling); Argentina and Brazil devour empanadas; Ghanaians pack fufu, mashed cassava or plantain, with delectable fillings; and the Polish offer perfect pierogi.
It’s clear that lots of places around the globe came up with the idea simultaneously, so there must be a pretty good reason for its development. Many food histories speculate that the idea for dumplings came about independently, but for the same reason: to make food last. Hundreds of years ago, food wasn’t nearly as accessible or affordable as it is today in much of the world, and the rise of the dumpling seems to accommodate larger families with smaller amounts of food. A bit of meat might not have been enough to feed an entire family, but mixed with otherwise plentiful ingredients like carrots and cabbage and folded into a floury dough, each person would be able to get a great taste of meat and a bit of protein. Just a few dumplings would serve as a hearty meal with plenty of nutrients.
Where did this versatile and tasty treat originate, and when? It’s difficult to say, seeing as so many cultures have some variety of a stuffed, carby bite-sized snack. The first-known recipes for this type of food can be found in an ancient Roman cookbook called Apicius. But unlike modern Italian ravioli (a delicious dumpling in itself), this dish consists of balls of roasted pheasant chopped together with fat and seasonings and then poached.
But Rome wasn’t the only place to popularize boiled dumplings. Austria uses stale bread soaked in milk or other liquid as a base for the dumpling that is mixed with other leftover foods and then boiled in broth. In Germany, spaetzle is an unfilled doughy dumpling that is boiled in water.
The modern concept of a filled dumpling didn’t reach Europe until much later but was much more prevalent in Asia early on. Chinese dumplings that you would find in a restaurant today have been served for nearly two thousand years, basically unchanged. A man named Zhang Zhongjian is often credited with their conception when he returned to his home village to find neighbors suffering from frostbite, especially around the ears. Zhang then whipped up a tasty mixture of mutton, chili, and healing herbs which he wrapped in leftover dough to form the shape of ears in the hopes of directing the warming powers of the boiled parcels to their most frostbitten appendages.
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