There are all sorts of variations of “comfort food” across the continents; in Asia and Southeast Asia, however, it’s the dumpling. This unassuming little dough ball is an adaptable food, which can work equally well as a starter, main course or dessert, and can be cooked in all sorts of different ways, from boiling and steaming to simmering or frying.
Whichever way they’re made, all dumplings have the same simple culinary base; small pieces of dough wrapped around a filling, which can be meat, fish, vegetables or sweets.
Legend has it that the home of dumplings is China, where they were first invented in the era of the Three Kingdoms around 225AD, and many of us will have heard of the Chinese favourites: wonton (a dumpling with a thin, elastic skin and typically boiled in a light broth or soup) or har gow (shrimp dumplings) served in dim sum.
You might not know, however, that dumplings are also eaten around the globe, from Africa (kenkey – partly boiled starchy balls of dough steamed in banana leaves) and India (gujia – a sweet dumpling made with wheat flour and stuffed with khoya, thickened milk), to Filipino cuisine (siomai – made from beef and shrimp, steamed or fried and dipped in soy sauce) and Caribbean (pan fried and usually served with breakfast codfish as a side).
In Taiwan, the most famous are the soup dumplings (xiaolongbao), pale golf ball-sized dumplings packed with meat or sweets, and described by the influential Forbes Magazine as “the world’s greatest dumplings.”
A staple of the Taiwanese diet, people eat these dough creations at any time of the day and also just as a snack. And the best place to eat soup dumplings is the famous Din Tai Fung restaurant in the Taiwan capital, Taipei, where people queue hours for a table.
Customers can watch their dumplings being made behind the windows of an open kitchen, a fascinating sight as the chefs – in full whites – work the dough, taking just seconds to prepare each dumpling. Each dumpling must have 18 folds and weigh 21g. Customers can send back any dumplings that don’t meet these strict criteria.
In Taiwan, soup dumplings are usually made with a variety of meat, including beef and chicken, or vegetable fillings. The dumplings are served up in a bamboo basket and the delicious, perfectly formed balls look like exquisite pieces of culinary art.
You eat them dipped in ginger and soy sauce, a delicate balance of flavours that bursts on the tongue. Gorgeous vibrant green vegetables – shredded beans and courgettes – are served as side dishes.
Sweet versions of soup dumplings are filled with taro (similar to the sweet potato or yam) or a red bean paste.
From a single restaurant in Taipei, Din Tai Fung has grown to 63 outlets in 10 countries. You’ll be able to try the legendary dumplings yourself soon to see what the fuss is all about when one of the restaurants opens in the Mall of Emirates in Dubai. Dumpling heaven will be just an hour’s flight away.
If you can’t wait until then, make your own with this dumpling recipe: