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In the Beginning, There Were ... Dumplings?

From Warsaw to Wuhan, people around the world love dumplings. They're tasty little packages that can be made of any grain and stuffed with whatever the locals crave. But where did they come from?

No one knows for sure, but Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., thinks dumplings have been around for a very long time. "Almost without doubt, there are prehistoric dumplings," he says.

Albala envisions the origins of the dumplings like this: To get nutrition from wild grains, hunter-gatherer humans had to cook them. Maybe they'd hollow out a log and fill it with water. Then they'd use hot stones from a fire to get the water boiling. They'd throw in the grain, he says. "And I think it's a very fine line between putting in loose flour or meal, and getting a porridge out of it, or putting in lumps," and getting out dumplings.

Given a choice between gruel and dumplings, Albala says, many people would have chosen the dumpling. "A dumpling, I don't know, it seems like more fun to me," he says.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for dumplings date from over a thousand years ago, says Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine. Archaeologists have found wooden bowls filled with dumplings from eighth century Tang Dynasty graves "that look exactly the same as you'd see served in a restaurant in the area today," Dunlop says.

Dumplings were also around in Renaissance Europe, adds Albala. "The recipes start showing up in the 15th century," he says, often under the heading "gnocchi." "Basically, you just take breadcrumbs, you add flour to it, sometimes cheese, sometimes herbs and egg to bind it."

Today, dumplings exist across Europe and Asia. Many are called manti, or some variation thereof. Most are stuffed with whatever the locals like to eat: In the far west of China, it's mutton, in the Himalayas it might be Yak meat. In fact, says Dunlop, they're all pretty much the same as what the Chinese call wontons and the Italians call tortellini. "So the same methods, the same shapes of wrapped dumpling all the way from Italy, right across Asia to China and even Korea," she says.

It's the endless variation on the theme that make dumplings something to celebrate, says Scott Drewno, the executive chef at The Source restaurant in Washington, D.C.

An NPR dumpling week? It's not enough, he says. There are a thousand different possible types of dumplings: different folds, different fillings, different sauces, he says. "You could do a month if you wanted to."

Chef Drewno's Pork Potstickers with Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce

For Potsticker Filling

3 lb pork butt

1 tbsp cure salt

2 tbsp chopped garlic

1 tbsp chopped ginger

2 tbsp sugar

¼ cup oyster sauce

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp white pepper

¼ cup chopped cilantro

½ cup scallions, thinly sliced

1 tbsp sesame oil

¼ cup dried cherries, reconstituted, drained

¼ cup dried apricots, reconstituted, drained

¼ cup golden raisins, reconstituted, drained

Instructions: Mix all ingredients in bowl. Place in freezer for 20 minutes. Grind in mixer with ¼ inch die. Mix in KitchenAid with paddle attachment.

To Fill Potsickers

Storebought potsticker skins

Egg Yolks

Instructions: Place potsticker skin on table. Brush half with egg yolk. Place small amount of filling in center of skin. Fold skin in half, and pleat along top using thumb and forefinger. Press bottom gently against cutting board, then bend in crescent shape.

Place in boiling water, cook 3 to 4 minutes til fully cooked through. Drain.

Place in hot sauté pan with peanut oil and cook on one side until golden brown. Remove and place on plate with black vinegar dipping sauce (recipe follows). Garnish with carrot strings, beet strings, and daikon strings.

For Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce

4 tsp black vinegar

1/8 cup chili oil

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp soy sauce (Kikkoman or Yamasa )

2 tbsp mushroom soy sauce

¼ cup rice vinegar

2 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

Instructions: Place all ingredients in bowl and mix well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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