perogies. Ravioli. Shumai. Har gow. samosa Gyoza. tamales Every culture has a version of dumplings, those delicious doughy creations you’ll find everywhere from grocery store freezers to food stands to restaurant menus. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, edited by John Lorinc, writers reflect on the meaning of dumplings — their populism, their cultural significance, and of course, their deliciousness. To whet your appetite, read an adapted version of the book’s introduction, written by The Star’s Karon Liu.
The more I write about food, the more I realize that…dumplings are universal—that’s why they’re such an easy entry point into a culture’s cuisine. There are so many dumpling variations: steamed, fried or boiled; filled or not; sweet or savory; big or small; in soups or pure. There are nuances in cuisine that vary between regions, cities and – damn it – households and generations that no one can ever fully grasp.
Technically, the matzo balls in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, the xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, in Shanghainese cuisine, and the Jamaican spinners used in soups and stews are all categorized as dumplings. But otherwise these dishes don’t have much in common – apart from their deliciousness. I remember being introduced to spaetzle as a teenager when I was invited to a friend’s house to try Austrian home cooking. I devoured the spaetzle along with the schnitzel, perplexed but overwhelmed that there were dumplings beyond the wontons I ate as a kid.
Hell, even with wontons, everyone in my circle of friends and family prefers a different filling or fold. A friend prefers the squeeze method — literally putting a bit of filling in the wrapper and then making her fist to seal it — because it’s the quickest method (and most common among sifus in restaurants). My mom, on the other hand, prefers the fold that makes the dumpling look like a crested person because her mom taught her how to do it. Don’t even get me started on the differences between wontons, water dumplings, potstickers, and soup dumplings…mainly because I’m still learning the different techniques and regional variations of each of them as I delve deeper and deeper into Chinese cooking.
Living in a city where there is no monoculture or definitive way to define a dish means being treated to a seemingly endless collection of flavors, culinary knowledge and memories that people love to share. Here’s a story about what dumplings mean to me.
For as long as I can remember, when my mom ran out of dinner ideas and was in a hurry, one of her favorite dishes was wontons: ground beef, Chinese cabbage, a mixture of dark and light soy sauce with a little cane sugar, and a packet of store-bought dumplings. I watched her pinch a walnut-sized chunk of the filling from a large metal bowl and place it in the center of the wrapper. She dipped a finger into a water-filled bowl of rice, wiped the rim of the wrapper, and — through a series of bruises and creases — a dumpling appeared in seconds.
In the early months of COVID-19, in January 2020, I went with some friends to a noodle place in Markham called Wuhan Noodle 1950 to order their dry pot noodles and a side of dumplings. Months before the pandemic emergency was officially declared in Canada, Chinese restaurants began to see their business plummet due to old, racist stereotypes about Chinese food and cleanliness, all of which had resurfaced amid simmering fears about the virus.
This particular place had been inundated with racist prank calls, which continued on social media. Sensing the place could use a positive lift, I went, ate great food and wrote about it for the Toronto Star. I explained the restaurant’s regional Chinese cuisine and how a place like this fits into the evolution of Chinese cuisine in the greater Toronto area. In recent years we are seeing greater adoption of regional Chinese cuisine from both independent owners and international chains using the GTA as a test market before expanding elsewhere. The Chinese food here evolved from Canadian-Chinese chop suey houses to more Hong Kong and Cantonese fare as the GTA saw an influx of immigrants in the ’80s and ’90s. Then more people from mainland China came, bringing their local cuisine – as did international Chinese chains, which served everything from stew to different styles of noodles.
Chinese food is no longer lumped into one huge category, and diners are becoming increasingly aware that hand-pulled beef noodles are representative of Lanzhou, and to get a steamer of xiaolongbao you have to go to a Shanghai eatery. Although the circumstances I learned about this place that serves Wuhan dry noodles are unfortunate, it gave me an opportunity to talk about the dish that originated in Hubei province.
Dumplings reappeared in my life in the early months of the Toronto pandemic lockdown. Bags of frozen potstickers became something of a savior in my household in the days before the pandemic, when every trip to the grocery store seemed like a run to get supplies during a zombie apocalypse.
We bought frozen potstickers in bags of 100 from a wholesale store called the Northern Dumpling Co. in our Scarborough neighborhood. During the many days during those first few months when I could barely get out of bed, let alone cook a meal from scratch, the dumplings kept me energized for another day.
Similarly, in the spring of 2022, church basements and restaurants across Canada produced varenyky by the thousands to raise aid funds for Ukrainian refugees. Diners wanting to show their support ordered the dumplings by the dozen and were more interested in learning more about Ukraine’s response to the pierogi.
What I’m trying to say is that everyone has a different relationship with food, including something as seemingly mundane and traditional as the dumpling. As people move, generations of attitudes and values change, ingredients and techniques are adapted or evolved, and as technology changes the way we cook, the role that food plays in our lives also changes.
Who knows? If you ask me five years from now what my relationship with dumplings is, maybe I’ll be able to say that they’re one of my favorite weeknight meals. Maybe I add masala spice because an Indian restaurant owner gave me a couple of jars of his father’s concoctions and boasted that they could be used for anything. Or I add finely chopped mint to the filling as a nod to the Vietnamese restaurants I always turn to for takeout — and to use local ingredients — because I have a serious problem with overgrown mint in my garden.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION