According to What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, “If the world’s cuisines share one common food, it might be the dumpling, a dish that can be found on every continent and in every culinary tradition. . . . Originally from China, they evolved into ravioli, samosas, momos, gyozas, tamales, pierogies, matzo balls, wontons, empanadas, potato chops, and many more.” A mind-twister for me and many others whose image of a dumpling was far more limited than the expansive notion the book postulates.

“Dumplings” is a unique take on a food “cookbook”— which is what I had originally categorized it as being. However, editor John Lorinc did a quick checkmate on my initial assumption stating “. . . this is not a cookbook, although it does contain some recipes. The contributors include talented professional food writers and chefs, but also essays from people who don’t normally write about food.”

Lorinc is a journalist reporting on urban affairs, politics, business, technology, and local history for a range of media, including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and other news outlets. He is an author and coeditor of four other anthologies. Karon Liu is a staff food reporter for the Toronto Star; moreover, he is an “avid home cook”. Together, they have created what publisher Coach House Books defines as “A unique anthology (where) food writers, journalists, culinary historians, and musicians share histories of their culture’s version of the dumpling, family dumpling lore, interesting encounters . . . and even recipes to unwrap the magic of the world’s favorite dish.”

Uh-huh, I mumbled while thumbing through the 229-page, five-by-eight-by-3/4-inch book – tiny as measured against the hefty books I frequently review. What I was about to undertake was a morsel read in comparison. In a micro expression of resignation (raised shoulders, head down), I hunkered into my pandemic hide-away to discover what the “unique anthology” had to offer. Full disclosure: I worship at the temple of dumplings, having a lifelong, uninterrupted relationship with many. The turn in focus had shaken my anticipatory expectations, not to mention awakening my ever healthy appetite.

So I cautiously began to scour the pages, intently scanning the Table of Contents seeking a roadmap for my dumplings adventure. Between the Preface/Introduction and Conclusion, awaiting my foraging probes, were the chapter divisions: The Wrapper, The Filling, and The Sauce. My salivary glands were suddenly triggered; drooling commenced.

In his Preface, Lorinc cites American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s anointment of the Shanghai xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) with the canonical foodie description: “Pillows of Happiness.” Enthusiastically, I nodded in unequivocal agreement.

Lorinc traces the dumpling trail as “dating back millennia,” its migratory genealogical family tree meandering across vast and diverse diasporas.  He describes the who, what, why and where the book intends to take the reader and provides a three-page listing of a “not-at-all” complete list of global dumpling species available, from cities, countries, nations and regions (large, small, well known and barely known) in Asia, North, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Oceania.

With dumpling monikers such as Shabhaley (Tibet), Gulab Jaman (India), Panki’ alhfola’ (Chiksaw Nation), Spinners (Jamaica), Vareniki (Ukraine), Szilvas Gombóc (Hungary), Awameh (Middle East), Fufu (West Africa/Caribbean), Dimmies (Australia), Chai Kueh (Indonesia) and Siopao (Philippines), Lorinc determined that defining dumpling (“attempting to come up with a framework and a taxonomy”) to be exceedingly difficult. Ultimately, with tongue-in-cheek (I imagined wrapped around a dumpling) Lorinc suggests that those inclined toward heated debate over definitions might best achieve resolve huddled at a table “over dim sum.” I chortled aloud, amused by his witty humor, and eagerly turned the page. 

In his Introduction, food journalist Karon Liu states, “. . . dumplings are universal. It’s why they’re such an easy entryway into a culture’s cuisine.” He notes “there’s no way one person can be an expert on every cuisine” which leads him to believe in the book’s focus on multiple contributors dispensing “infinite collection of flavors, culinary knowledge and memories (they’re) eager to share.” The essays in “Dumplings” are mini-accounts of peculiar, remarkable, extraordinary, specific time capsules from the points of view of each author. Liu then shares his own dumpling story; his embedded personal remembrances and emotions a fitting inaugural entry to the first chapter of the book: Wrappers.

Michal Stein begins the segment on The Wrapper in his essay, “Around the World,” as he sits in the “molasses traffic” of Tibet. His sole thought is focused on a “bag full of Tibetan momos” ensconced on the seat beside him, which leads him to memories of dim sum among friends: “a group of Jews, sitting around, eating a lot of pork and shrimp. As unkosher as it gets.” Stein’s article is followed by four others, including that of Trinidad native, André Alexis, who writes of “early and vivid sensations” of his encounter with the Solid, Glutinous, and Toothsome dumpling. His contribution rambles on to include surprising anecdotes related to monkey flesh, cow heel soup and iguana stew. 

The Filling section of the book finds Sylvia Putz writing about The Dumpling in Me Honours the Dumpling in You, in which she describes a group of diverse friends learning how to make Korean dumplings to replace their traditional holiday cookie exchange pastime. Miscellaneous chatter turns to the introduction of the word “namaste” which is explained as a greeting meaning “the light in me honours the light in you”. During the night of making dumplings together, Putz discovers her friendships as a dumpling metaphor cloaked in the namaste greeting. The most prodigious section of the book, it includes a dozen essays, with intriguing titles such as Chantal Braganza’s Potatoes, Beans, and a Reluctant Cook, Eric Geringas’ The Knedlik, Warts and All, and Mattew Murtagh-Wu’s I Pinch, Therefore I am.

The Sauce component provides ten narratives, including Gnocci Love by Domenica Marchetti, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, Why am I Eating Matzo Ball Soup? by Amy Rosen. In The Round Ambassador by Jennifer Jordan, she recalls the agriculture minister of Upper Austria holding a press conference, announcing a campaign bringing attention to their “strikingly symbolic and profoundly filling” dumplings as a tourist attraction. His brainstorm to place the province “on the culinary map”, resulting in the grand title “kingdom of dumplings.” Curious regarding the outcome? Purchase the book.

A drool-worthy publication and fun-tastic read, What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings is a compendium of some of the most engaging stories centered on dumplings. The book’s thirty-five essays strongly suggest the possibility that everyone has their own dumpling story. What’s yours?

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