This is the season when a hearty bowl of stew is one of the most welcome of meals, and there is nothing I enjoy more as an accompaniment than a dumpling. Not that I have always been able to cook them, my first attempts being like bullets and one one memorable occasion, so large that they supped up all the liquid in the casserole!
Dumplings originate from China. 1800 years ago in the Han Dynasty, a man named Zhang Zhongjian noticed that all the people in his village were suffering most dreadfully from frostbite, especially around their poor ears. He solved he problem by cooking up mutton, chilli and healing herbs wrapping them in scraps of dough, folding the dumplings to look like ears. He boiled them and handed them out to the villagers, who thought they tasted wonderful.
History does not record wither they cured the frostbite. The experience of eating food such as this, is enhanced for me by knowing that our ancestors enjoyed them too.
The dough of a dumpling can be made from a variety of starch sources, based on bread, flour or potatoes. This is then wrapped around a filling which can be one of meat, fish, cheese or vegetables. There are also sweet dumplings, filled with fruit or sweets.
They can be cooked using different methods such as baking, boiling in stock, simmering or steaming. It is easy to see why dumplings are so popular, they are relatively cheap and (allegedly) easy to make. The traditional British dumpling which some of us remember so fondly from childhood onward, is made by combining twice the weight of self-raising flour to suet, bound by cold water to form a dough seasoned with salt and pepper and if the fancy takes you herbs.
My family hale from Norfolk where the dumpling is made in a slightly different manner. The Norfolk Dumpling, (the food not one of the inhabitants!) is not made with fat but with a raising agent and flour. In the Cotswolds they add breadcrumbs and cheese, sometimes rolling them in breadcrumbs too. Then, oh sinful loveliness, they fry them all golden and crispy.
A vegetarian version of the suet dumpling just uses a vegetable suet rather than the meat based product, and you wouldn’t taste the difference. We use this in our sweet mincemeat so that vegetarians can enjoy it too. In Scotland, dumplings sweetened with fruit and spices are boiled tied inside a cloth in water and are called a “clootie dumplings” after the cloth.
Dumplings in fact, have taken over the world, being made and eaten from the Asian continent to the Americas. A truly international dish.