There's something extraordinarily satisfying about biting into a perfect dumpling—the tug of dough, the burst of steam, that first hit of flavorful filling. And the history of the dumpling is a noble one, a tale of transforming meager ingredients, typically expensive animal proteins, into hearty, substantial meals with the help of a little flour and water.
But in a galaxy of won tons and potstickers, knishes and kreplach, empanadas and ravioli, knowing where a dumpling begins and ends can get a little complicated. Like the chicken and the egg, the true nature of the dumpling remains shrouded in mystery...or at least a healthy amount of debate. So when we set out to chart some of the world's greatest dumplings, we found ourselves faced with a single all-consuming question. What is dumpling?
Ultimately, while the word "dumpling" may have many different meanings—and in China, the dumpling capital of the world, no meaning at all—we've been forced to make some difficult decisions. As we embark on the epic project of classifying our planet's vast array of dumplings, we've opted to count only those foods made by wrapping dough around a filling. And, to simplify matters further, we're including only those foods intended to be consumed in three bites or fewer. Quibble if you must, but items like gnocchi and matzo balls won't appear here. Likewise, with an upcoming guide to Italian pastas in the works, your tortellini, agnolotti, and ravioli haven't been included in this particular list.
In the meantime, join us on a journey from China to India, Nepal, Russia, and beyond, as we explore the great wide world of dumplings.
Pretty much all roads in the dumpling ancestry path lead to China. The country is crawling with dumplings of all shapes and sizes with different types of fillings, wrappers, and cooking methods.
Depending on who you ask, Chinese dumplings can be divided into any number of different categories. There are wheat flour doughs and doughs made of rice flour or tapioca starch, steamed dumplings and fried dumplings, sweet and savory, leavened and unleavened...the list goes on.
At the end of the day, trying to classify something as wildly popular and diverse as a Chinese dumpling is an exercise in futility. But most folks draw the line based on the shape of the dumpling. In the States, crescent-shaped dumplings (gao or jiao, which are usually made with an unleavened dough) are commonly translated as "dumpling," while purse-shaped dumplings (bao, made with either an unleavened or leavened dough) are typically translated as "buns," even when there's nothing particularly bun-like about them—think soup dumplings, which often appear on menus as "little juicy buns." To keep things simple, we've decided to follow suit.
Crescent-shaped dumplings are made by folding a thin, round circle of dough around a filling and pleating or crimping the edges together. They're actually pretty easy to make at home. Beyond the diverse range of fillings, you'll find crescent-shaped dumplings steamed, boiled, pan-fried, and deep-fried. Here are some of the most common varieties you're likely to encounter in the wild.
Guo Tie: This is what most Americans refer to as a potsticker. Made with fresh wrappers and eaten hot, the perfect pan-fried dumpling should have a golden brown, ultra-crisp fried bottom, with a skin that's springy and chewy, but never tough or doughy. Guo tie come with a wide range of fillings, from shrimp to mixed vegetables, but our go-to combination is juicy pork and chive.
Shui Jiao: These tender boiled dumplings are made with a thin wheat-based wrapper. They can be served in broth like wontons, or simply drained and served with a dipping sauce. Ground pork and vegetables are both common fillings.
Zheng Jiao: More delicate than boiled dumplings, steamed dumplings are made with beautifully pleated translucent wrappers. Common fillings range from pork and chives to shrimp, cabbage, or any number of vegetables.
Har Gow: Plump and juicy, with chunks of shrimp barely visible through translucent dough, har gow are one of the most widely recognized dim sum classics. The wheat starch skin that encases the filling is cut with tapioca to give it extra stretchiness. These are one of the most difficult dumplings to make properly: the skin should be translucent yet sturdy, slightly chewy but not tough, with perfectly cooked, crisp shrimp inside. Our recipe enhances the shrimp with bits of pork fat in the stretchy, delicate wrapper.
Chiu-Chao Fun Gow: There is something undoubtedly fun about these dumplings. The thin tapioca starch-enhanced wheat wrappers are filled with a crunchy, fresh-tasting mix of shrimp, pork, and peanuts, often flavored with cilantro and crisp chunks of jicama. It's a unique textural experience that place these steamed dumplings in a class of their own.
Purse-shaped dumplings are formed with a round of dough that is pleated and drawn towards the top of the fillings like a draw-string purse. (Here's how to make them at home). In form and nomenclature, they're very similar to thick, bready, Chinese-style steamed buns, but for our purposes, we made a distinction between bready steamed buns and the decidedly dumpling-like versions made with thinner wrappers.
Jiu Cai Bau: You can see the generous filling of peppery chives peeking through the skin of these rounded dumplings. They're pan-fried for a crisp, blistered crust.
Xiao Long Bao: A perfect pliable, juicy soup dumpling is something to be treasured. The pork-based (or pork-and-crab-based) filling is made with collagen-rich pork parts that yield a thick, sticky stock that solidifies as it cools. It's folded into a thin round of stretchy wheat dough, which is gathered up and pleated into a swirled bun. As the dumpling steams, the gelatin-rich broth in the filling melts. What you're left with is a plump bun brimming with a rich savory soup that must be carefully sucked out before digging into the tender, springy meatball within. That, or you can boldly down the whole thing in one go, letting it burst in your mouth like a savory Chinese Gusher. Just proceed quickly—these have one of the shortest dumpling shelf-lives, quickly turning sodden and mushy as that gelatinous broth congeals.
Sheng Jian Bao: Sheng Jian Bao--fried soup dumplings--while a ubiquitous breakfast food or snack in Shanghai for at least the last century, live in the shadow of their far more famous steamed counterpart. This is unfortunate, because if anything. SJB are even tastier than XLB--at least when made right. Sheng Jian Bao start with a slightly thicker dough that, just like XLB, get pleated around a gelatin-rich filling. They're cooked in large, covered cast iron pans filled with just enough water to steam them through. As the water evaporates, the dumplings begin to fry on their bottom surface. You end up with a tender, steamed, juice-filled bun with a golden-brown, crisply fried bottom.
Siu Mai: Another dim sum classic, these open-topped steamed pork and/or shrimp dumplings are made with a thin, wrinkled wheat flour wrapper. Often topped with fish roe or grated carrot, or even a single pea, they're fresh-tasting and juicy.
Other Chinese Dumplings
Other meat-inside-a-starchy-filling Chinese treats abound that don't fit neatly into our first two categories, but nonetheless deserve recognition.
Haam Sui Gok: Haam sui gok are made with a glutinous rice dough. Deep-fried, they come out blistered and crispy on the outside with a chewy, lightly doughy layer underneath. Fillings range from savory pork and sausage to coconut or sweet bean paste.
Wu Gok: Frilly strands of fried purple taro make up the delicate exterior of these meaty pork dumplings. At once sweet and savory, crisp and tender, wu gok are a delightful study in contrasts.
Won Ton: With their distinctive square wrappers, supple-skinned won tons are a common sight in Chinese soups, bobbing alongside cabbage and noodles. Though typically filled with ground pork and/or shrimp, their proportions differ based on provenance, with some quite heavy and substantial, and others light and airy, more wispy skin than filling.
Tang Yuan: These sweet, sticky glutinous rice dumplings are often filled with rock candy, sesame paste, peanuts, or red bean paste. Boiled until soft and chewy, they can be served on their own or, more commonly, in a sweet bean, sesame, or ginger soup.
East and South Asian Dumplings
Chinese dumpling culture has had a huge influence on the cuisines of neighboring countries, almost all of which have dumpling forms of their own.
Mandu: A wide variety of Korean dumplings fall under this umbrella. Mulmandu are boiled stuffed dumplings, while jjinmandu are steamed. Meanwhile, gunmandu are pan fried. They can be filled with anything from pork or beef to kimchi or fish.
Gyoza: The Japanese version of guo tie, gyoza feature a much thinner skin and a pork-based filling that's often flavored with garlic. They're served pan-fried at ramen shops and even Chinese restaurants. The best shops will pan fry them in specially-made cast iron pans, after first steaming them with water. The washed off starches from the dumplings form a lacy crust on the bottom of the pan that can be carefully lifted, fusing the dumplings on one solid base that remains crisp as you eat it.
Momo: In Tibet and Nepal, you'll find dumplings that are thicker, breadier, and heartier than their Chinese counterparts. Momo typically contain hearty meats like beef and yak, sometimes spiced with black or Sichuan peppercorns. Unlike their Chinese analogues, they rarely contain vegetables for added juiciness and more complex flavor. They're steamed or fried and served with chili sauce, though sometimes a tomato-based hot sauce or chicken broth will come along with it, too.
Thai-style Rice Dumplings: Made with fresh steamed rice noodles and sprinkled with sweet fried shallots, these chewy dumplings can be filled with a range of sweet and savory fillings.
Samosas: Though often associated with India, samosas are popular through the Middle East and South Asia. The savory pastry-like dumplings are deep-fried or pan-fried with fillings of vegetables like lentils or potatoes, or ground beef or lamb. They're typically heavily spiced and served with a variety of chutneys and dipping sauces.
Gujia This Indian crescent-shaped dessert dumpling can be filled with a sweet mixture of fruits and coconut, or khoya—a sweet, crumbly ricotta-like dairy product popular in South Asian cuisines.
Modak: With rounded pleats that come to a point, India's purse-like sweet dumplings are made from coconut and jaggery sugar stuffed into a gluey rice flour dough.
Other Central Asian and Eastern European Dumplings
Eastern European dumplings may feature markedly different flavors and ingredients than their Asian brethren, but their origins are one and the same. Here are some of the most commonly spotted dumplings that have made their way from China to Europe.
Pierogi: Hailing from Poland, these boiled-then-fried (or baked) wheat flour dumplings are stuffed with potato, sauerkraut, meat, or fruit. They're made into crescent shapes and pan-fried flat. Buttery and hearty, they're a perfect winter comfort food.
Vareniki: The Ukrainian version of pierogi are commonly stuffed with sauerkraut, cheese, potatoes, and meat, and can be served sweet with fruit sauce or cheese. They're cooked by boiling or steaming and served in oil or butter.
Pelmeni: From China by way of Siberia, these Russian wheat-based dumplings are packed with a peppery, onion-spiked filling of minced meat—beef, pork, and mutton are all common choices.
Kreplach: Another winter warmer, these Jewish dumplings are filled with meat or potatoes. They're often served in hot broth that's fatty with a strong chicken flavor, emboldened by sweet onion, dill, and black pepper, though you can also get them crisp and deep-fried. The kreplach itself is usually thick and doughy, the chewy skin wrapped around a rich, onion-sweetened filling of beef or chicken. Much like some Italian pastas, the wheat dough is enriched with egg.
Khinkali: Spiced meat releases juices as it cooks within these large Georgian dumplings. Like xiaolongbao, the result is a rich, soupy filling surrounding a tender ball of meat. Khinkali have a thick knot on top that's not meant to be eaten. Instead, Georgians pick up the dumplings by the knots, eat the rest, then discard the dough wads.
Manti: Also known as Mantu, these Turkish dumplings are prevalent throughout Central Asia, in countries like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Most often stuffed with spiced lamb, toppings range from a spiced tomatoey sauce (Armenia) to yogurt, chili oil, and Middle Eastern spices like pepper and sumac.
Other Dumpling-Like Objects
Of course, that's just the tip of the dumpling iceberg, and more styles and definitions abound. Many, we've omitted simply because they don't register with our common understanding of dumplings—an albeit subjective "I know it when I see it" sort of proposition. For instance, while a baked wheat-flour version of empanadas is doesn't seem to qualify by our definition of a stuffed dumpling, the corn-based varieties common to Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica that are made with a deep-fried, unleavened dough may. The filling can range from potato to ground meat to a variety of other seeds, meats, and vegetables. And, of course, ravioli, tortellini, and other stuffed pastas all technically fit our basic definition of stuffed dumplings. There's also the Colombian carimañolas, featuring meat or cheese wrapped in a yucca dough wrapper and deep-fried until crisp. In other words, the list goes on, and ours is a living guide—tell us about your favorite dumplings for future updates!
—With additional reporting from The Serious Eats Team