A Dumpling Manifesto
Why Americans must demand better.
Dumpling rage, like road rage, strikes without warning. My first attack came in my mid-20s, while dining at Raku, a Washington, D.C., "pan-Asian" restaurant. I made the mistake of ordering something called Chinese dumplings. Out came a bamboo steamer containing what resembled aged marshmallows—dumplings cooked so long they were practically glued to the bottom of the container. Try as I might, I could not pry them loose, until one ripped in half, yielding a small meatball of dubious composition.
It was an outrage. To my friends' embarrassment, I stood up and shouted at our waiter:
"What are these?"
"Dumplings," he said.
"These," I said, "are not dumplings. The skin is too thick. The meat is too small. It's been cooked too long. The folding is done all wrong." My friends begged me to stop, and the manager threatened to call the police.
But my anger, if ill-directed, was justified. The Chinese dumpling is a magnificent product of the human imagination: At its best, it is charming in appearance, chewy and savory, and can trigger a head rush like sashimi or blue cheese. Such dumplings are not impossible to find in the United States. In fact, I once worked at a shop that produced such delicacies, called Hoo's Dumplings, in Charlottesville, Va. For the most part, however, the dumpling has arrived here in bastardized form, as similar to the real thing as Kraft Parmesan cheese is to its ancestors. That's why it's time for a dumpling revolution.
Nasty American versions of otherwise dignified foods are something of a national tradition. The Parmesan-in-a-can, mentioned above, is perhaps the best example—the greatest cheese in the world, reduced to sawdust. But I am an optimist. Look at American wine, coffee, and sushi, all of which have slowly climbed to palatability after decades of abuse. The American variations may never be exactly like their originals, but they have slowly become great in their own way.
If dumplings are to follow this path to made-in-America greatness, we must understand what plagues our dumplings. Let's start with the skin. As any serious aficionado will tell you, the skin makes or breaks a dumpling. It must be sticky, thin, and chewy at the same time—no easy feat. It's similar to the challenge of making perfect sushi rice or pasta.
Unfortunately, American Chinese and pan-Asian outlets are lazy and suffer badly from a "thick-skin" epidemic, resulting in dumplings that are tough and greasy. A thick skin can also lead to a soggy dumpling, which is the worst fate—imagine eating a sandwich that's been soaked in water.
The real problem with overthickness is that it destroys what I like to call the "magic ratio"—the science behind the art of dumplings. The magic ratio—a factor in foods from sushi to sandwiches—is the perfect ratio of protein to carbohydrate. The right ratio seems to activate some kind of pleasure center in the brain, bringing about calm and quiet elation. Some dumpling devotees describe dumplings, done right, as mildly orgasmic.
Photograph of dumplings by Tim Wu.