Chef Tom – The Humble Dumpling


Dumpling. The name says cute, like the word dimple. Dumplings are comfort forever, doughy and soft as a pillow. No one eats a dumpling and stays mad. Wee floating clouds, swelling as they soak, holding onto their savory juices like a secret. Dumplings are cushions of custard, content to bathe in a creamy-sweet vanilla-scented bath, just a little bit longer please.


A broad classification for a dish, dumplings are made from pieces of dough wrapped around a filling. Sometimes they don’t need a filling because they’re quite capable of standing on their own, thank you.  Dough can be based on bread, flour, or potatoes. Filling can be meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, fruits, or something sweet and sugary. Dumplings are baked, boiled, fried, simmered, and steamed. Name a country, anywhere in the world, and you will find at least one kind of dumpling (or a dozen varieties), on the local menu.

Webster’s defines confluence as a situation in which two things come together, or happen at the same time. A dumpling is an excellent example of culinary confluence, the coming together of disparate food items into one broad category, which, with just a tweak in method or a switch of ingredient, can transport the giddy guzzler from one culture to another. Eat a potsticker and you’re in Pyongchang. Munch a plate of Nepalese momo’s and you’re sitting on a yak in Melangewa. Tear into a handmade tamale, and find yourself overlooking the lush jungle valley of Teotihuacan. Pop a pop tart into a toaster and you could very well be from Peoria.


Nepalese Momo’s



The most popular tale of the first dumplings ever invented, is that they were created by a Chinese healer, nicknamed Medicine Saint, as far back as the third century BC. On discovering that his local customers were suffering from their ears being frostbitten in the winter cold, he fashioned small, ear-shaped morsels called Jiaozuo (JOH-zu), filling them with blood purifying herbs and body-warming mutton. Perhaps they served as a direct remedy at the time, but for sure, his dumplings made a significant impression, becoming a well-loved food tradition that has lasted for eons. There was also a bowl of ancient petrified dumplings found completely intact, dating all the way back to the eighth century. Dumplings even appear in antique Roman cookbooks.

Perhaps the first dumplings were from a single source, like the Medicine Saint, spreading far and wide like culinary contagion. Dumpling ubiquity. My assertion, however, is that the humble dumpling was simply born out of human need, occurring simultaneously in cultures across the globe, like the mysteriously similar step pyramids found in Egypt, Cambodia, and Peru. This human need is a simple algorithm: hunger + a family/village – plentiful protein + grains = stretching what little food there is so everyone gets fed.

Africa has banku, made from fermented cornmeal, and fufu made from boiling cassava. Manti are little ravioli-style dumplings favored throughout central Asia. Dim sum carts stacked high with steamed, baked and fried treasures reflect the deep love that the Chinese have for dumplings. In India, the Hindi guhjia are sweet and ceremonial, some are fiery hot, and some are simple like the popular street food Samosa. Japan has their dango, with different flavors reflecting the seasons. Chileans make a roasted roll on a stick called a chochoca and Peruvians favor papas rellenos, stuffed potato dumplings.

Suffice it to say, dumplings are legion. They have been with us for eons, and will remain with us forever. There could very well be as many different kinds of dumplings as there are regions in a given country, like curries, another example of culinary confluence, where each cook makes their own signature combination of spices, conjuring up thousands of unique flavor profiles.

As our world becomes more and more homogenized, and cultures continue to moosh together, the ever-present diversity of dumplings increases exponentially. One could say, in fact, that two or more cultures creating culinary confluence by mooshing together disparate delectables, is the very act of forming a dumpling. One could even say that the world itself is turning into a giant bowl of momo’s.

A Giant Bowl of Momo’s

Here’s a classis recipe borrowed from the NY Times. It’s some work, but boy is it worth it. After you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s way easy. Talk about comfort food!

Chicken and Dumplings

Chicken and Dumplings
Serves 6

Heartier than chicken soup, this classic comfort dish is decidedly more stew-like, thanks to a golden-brown roux, a densely flavored chicken broth, and, of course, the dumplings. Think of them as a biscuit meeting a matzo ball: fluffy little clouds made from a quick mixture of flour, baking powder, buttermilk, butter and an egg for springiness. They’re cooked right on top of the chicken stew, partly poaching and partly steaming.


2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 stalks celery, chopped
6 medium carrots (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
4 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more as needed
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 large leeks, white and light green parts thinly sliced
8 cups chicken (bone) broth

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¾ cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup parsley, tender leaves and stems, finely chopped (optional)
¼ cup chives, finely chopped (optional)

Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches if needed, sear chicken, skin-side down, until deeply golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip chicken and continue to cook until it is browned on the other side, another 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer chicken to a large plate, and pour off all fat into a measuring cup. (You should have about 5 tablespoons, depending on the fattiness of the chicken.)

Leaving all the browned bits in the pot, return 2 tablespoons of fat to the pot. Add onions, celery and half the carrots. Season with salt and pepper and cook on medium heat, stirring to scrape up all the bits on the bottom of the pot. Cook until vegetables start to soften, about 4 minutes or so. Return chicken to the pot along with thyme and 8 cups of chicken broth (bone broth if you can find it). Simmer, uncovered, until chicken is completely tender and liquid has reduced by about 1/4, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate or cutting board to cool. Strain the stock (you should have about 5 cups; if you have less, you can add water to make up the difference) and wipe out the pot.

Heat remaining 3 tablespoons chicken fat along with 1 tablespoon butter (if you don’t have enough chicken fat, use enough butter to equal 4 tablespoons of fat) over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and stir constantly until it’s all a pale golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Slowly whisk in reserved chicken stock until no lumps remain (it will thicken considerably at first) and bring to a boil. Add leeks and remaining carrots, season with salt and pepper and lower the heat to simmer.

Remove and discard the skin and bones from the chicken. Shred the meat and add to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is nicely thickened and carrots and leeks are tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Make the dumplings: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk and egg and add to dry ingredients, followed by melted butter. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir just to combine. (Do not overmix.)

Using a spoon, drop generous quarter-size dollops of the dumpling dough into the pot (they should just sit right on top; they will not sink), spacing them apart as much as possible (it’s O.K. if they touch). Cover the pot and reduce heat to low. Cook, undisturbed, until the dumplings are puffed and totally cooked through, 18 to 22 minutes. (Test a dumpling by cutting it in half; it should look slightly biscuity, but with no raw bits of dough. If it needs more time, continue to cook.)

Remove lid and divide among bowls; sprinkle with parsley and chives, if using.


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

2 Responses to “Chef Tom – The Humble Dumpling”

  1. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Now I’m hungry! Great column.

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