An International History of Dumplings

Dumplings are a delicious staple that transcends borders, but how did these doughy delights rise to international fame?
Let’s dive into the delicious history of the dumpling.
Let’s dive into the delicious history of the dumpling. / Lisa Wiltse/Corbis/Getty Images (dumpling), Jasmin Merdan/Moment/Getty Images (background)

According to one legend, dumplings first appeared during the Han Dynasty. Roughly 1800 years ago, the story goes, a physician named Zhang Zhongjing returned to his hometown during a cold winter. He found his fellow villagers with frostbitten ears and concocted a new dish to help them warm up. His remedy consisted of mutton, herbs, and spices—ingredients he chose for their warming and medicinal properties. The doctor wrapped them in scraps of dough and folded the morsels to resemble tiny ears. It’s unclear if this aesthetic choice had any benefit. 

That particular tale is impossible to confirm, but the long history of dumplings in China is undeniable. From crescent-shaped har gow to soup-filled xiao long bao, the country is famous for folding delicious fillings into doughy packages. But was the first dumpling really invented there? Was the first dumpling even stuffed? And where do dumplings like Italian tortellini and Polish pierogi fit in?

Dumplings, Defined

Defining a dumpling is surprisingly difficult. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a small mass of dough cooked by boiling or steaming.” By this definition, dumplings don’t have to contain meat—or any filling, for that matter. 

Historians actually agree that the first dumplings were unstuffed. They were likely invented in prehistoric times by hunter-gatherers looking for new ways to prepare and consume grains. Boiling dollops of dough to make dumplings would have been the next natural step after cooking loose grains in water. As for why our ancestors would have made the effort to make dumplings instead of porridge, it’s difficult to say, but we do appreciate food historian Ken Albala’s reasoning, as told to NPR in 2013: “A dumpling, I don’t know, it seems like more fun to me.”

Though the culinary artform has evolved significantly, this basic take on dumplings still exists in many cultures today. German spätzle made from wheat flour, Italian gnocchi often made from flour and potatoes, and West African fufu made from cassava are all popular examples of plain, filling-less dumplings. 

The Origin of Dumplings

By 300 CE, the humble dish had undergone a transformation. Archeologists uncovered a tomb in China’s Xinjiang region from that year containing the remains of stuffed dumplings. This is the earliest physical evidence of dumplings ever discovered, but it doesn’t prove that China is the dish’s birthplace. Most food historians say filled dumplings originated in Central Asia. From there, nomadic Turkic peoples migrating west towards the Mediterranean and further East into Asia may have spread their recipes throughout the ancient world. 

This theory is supported by etymology. Though the words describe distinct dishes today, the Turkic word for dumpling is manti, which is thought to be the origin for Korea’s mandu, Greece’s manti, and China’s mantou. The Polish word pierogi and the Russian pelmeni may also have roots in a Turkic language.

Turkish manti.
Turkish manti. / BURCU ATALAY TANKUT/Moment/Getty Images

Some experts trace the earliest written evidence for dumplings to De Re Coquinaria, a Roman cookbook compiled around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. It contains a recipe for nuggets of chopped pheasant mixed with fat, broth, and spices, poached in seasoned water. This early grain-free dumpling stretches the definition of the term to include any food mixture that’s molded into a lump and boiled. 

That’s pretty broad, but even that description doesn’t encompass every item that’s been called a dumpling. If you forget the cooking method and focus on the formula of wrapper and filling, fried foods like samosas from India and empanadas (originally from Spain) would qualify as dumplings. That’s a controversially wide-ranging interpretation, but few would argue against a fried wonton’s place in the dumpling pantheon. Maybe it’s best to throw out rigid categories when it comes to dumplings, or defer to the word’s slang definition: a term of endearment for something small and adorable.

Dumplings Around the World

As the years progressed, dumplings in Europe went beyond boiled pheasant balls. Many Eastern Europeans enjoy semicircular wheat dumplings stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. This simple dish is called pirohy in Slovakia and varenyky in Ukraine, but most English-speakers know it as the Polish pierogi. Pierogis can be traced back to Poland in the 17th century. In 1682, cookbook author Stanisław Czerniecki published the Compendium Ferculorum, which listed multiple recipes for dessert pierogis and one savory preparation featuring a veal kidney filling. In the years that followed, cooks branched out from offal to popularized fillings made from mushrooms, sauerkraut, and cheese and potatoes.

Overhead view of a Bowl of Ukrainian vareniki dumplings with potato, sour cream and chives
Pierogis. / annabogush/RooM/Getty Images

The pierogi would eventually become Poland’s national dish. It’s so beloved that it even has its own patron saint. According to one story, Saint Hyacinth saved a famine-stricken town in the 13th century with a life-saving delivery of pierogis. A variation of the tale tells of him leading the town in prayer, causing their crops to sprout the next day. The villagers showed their appreciation by turning the wheat into fresh pierogis. If you want to add a unique exclamation to your vocabulary, try Święty Jacku z pierogami!, which is Polish for “St. Hyacinth and his pierogi!” It’s basically another way of saying “holy cow,” though unless you speak Polish it may not roll off the tongue quite as easily.

Italy is famous for its pasta; a stuffed version appeared in Lombardy around 500 years ago. Where that came from is a bit of a mystery. There’s a cookbook from around the year 1300 that mentions an Arabic filled pasta dish from 200 years earlier. That was likely a cousin of manti. But is there a connection from there to modern ravioli? No one knows. As food writer Rachel Roddy puts it, “After this, the work of historians documents terminological uncertainty, otherwise known as chaos.”

Ravioli on a table
Raviolis. / LauriPatterson/E+/Getty Images

These Italian pasta varieties filled with fine ingredients were originally served in the courts of aristocrats. When recipes made their way to lower class kitchens, they were usually reserved for holidays and other special occasions. Ravioli is still a common item to serve on Christmas in Italy today. 

Ravioli consists of meat, cheese, and/or vegetables pressed between two sheets of pasta dough that’s cut into a circle or square. It may be the country’s most popular stuffed pasta dish internationally, but it’s just one that Italy has to offer. If you cut ravioli into half-moon shapes you end up with mezzelune. Agnolotti are similarly shaped, but made by folding one sheet of pasta in half over a filling rather than pressing two sheets together. Tortellini, one of the smallest pastas in this category, are made by joining the two ends of a stuffed pasta packet to form a ring. The shape is meant to evoke a belly button—specifically that of the goddess Venus, according to one legend involving a creepy innkeeper and a keyhole. 

Most of these dumplings are bite-sized, but some stuffed pasta is impossible to fit on a fork. Ravioli gigante fit a whole serving of pasta into a single, plate-sized raviolo (the proper singular form of the word in Italian, by the way). The biggest of these monstrosities was cooked up in Malta in 2013; it weighed 175 pounds.

Chicken and dumplings in a skillet
Chicken and dumplings. / Brian Hagiwara/The Image Bank/Getty Images

An early appearance of dumplings in a U.S. cookbook comes from 1836’s The Virginia Housewife. Today, chicken and dumplings remains a beloved part of the southern food canon. That simple, comforting dish likely descends from some of the European predecessors mentioned previously. It would have evolved, in the antebellum era, in the hands of enslaved cooks, eventually becoming part of the soul food tradition.         

So, yes: Dumplings in some form are eaten around the world, but the word is probably still most closely associated with Chinese cuisine. One of the most recognizable dumplings consumed in the country is jiaozi. Typically filled with meat or vegetables, the simple bites are distinguished by their pleated, wheat dough wrappers.

Jiaozi dumplings on a black dish and a black table.
Jiaozi. / Ben Welsh/Moment/Getty Images

They’re often served for the Lunar New Year, though not because they look like crescent moons. Their curving shape might be modeled after an old Chinese coin, and eating them is believed to bring prosperity in the new year. Traditionally, if you want to wish someone good fortune in China, you fed them jiaozi with a coin hidden inside, presumably after warning them not to eat it in one bite.

Delicious Dumpling Fillings

Though meat and vegetables are the most common fillings, a dumpling can be a vessel for almost anything. Take har gow, for example: According to a popular story, the owner of a riverside tea house in Guangzhou was looking for a way to prepare fresh shrimp from the nearby water—so he turned the crustaceans into a filling for translucent dumpling wrappers.

Har gow dumplings in a steam basket.
Har gow. / Le Duc Tho/ Open/Getty Images

Har gow has since become a staple of dim sum, in which a selection of Cantonese small plates are served with tea. Dim sum is most popularly enjoyed in the morning time, a delicious and fun way to start the day. And if you want to judge the quality of a dim sum spot, according to one tradition, count the pleats in their har gow. The minimum for the dumpling is seven pleats, but the most accomplished dim sum chefs are able to crimp the wrapper 10 to 13 times. 

Dumpling fillings aren’t limited to solid food. Through some clever culinary wizardry, a chef in the Nanxiang district of Shanghai figured out a way to serve hot soup inside a delicate wrapper in the late 19th century. According to one legend, a restaurant owner named Huang Mingxian wanted to make his steamed buns stand apart from the competition. He began stuffing them with aspic, which is made by extracting collagen from animal bones and cartilage. Aspic helps ingredients congeal when cooled; when heated up inside steamed dumplings it liquifies into a savory broth. 

Xiao long bao soup dumpling with liquid in a spoon below.
Xiao long bao soup dumpling. / ASMR/Moment/Getty Images

Huang Mingxian knew exactly what to call his new soup dumpling: Nanxiang da rou mantou, which translates to “large meat-filled bun from Nanxiang.” The name was intentionally misleading, his thinking being that the surprise of being served a small dumpling would make a positive impression on customers rather than leaving them feeling ripped off. Fortunately for the dish’s future, satisfied diners started calling it “Nanxiang xiaolongbao” instead. Xiao, or “small,” referenced the fact that the dumplings were small, not large; long, or “basket” referenced the bamboo steamer baskets they came in; and bao meant “bun.” 

In addition to being one of the most delicious foods ever conceived, soup dumplings rank among the most dangerous. Hot soup is one of the leading causes of scald burns, and the right (or wrong) dumpling can be hazardous to bite into without caution. To enjoy them without obliterating your tastebuds, experts recommend waiting three to four minutes after the steamer basket hits your table. If you don’t have the self-control to test out this advice, you can cool the molten filling faster by poking (or biting) a valve through the top of the bun to let steam escape. And if you’re too nervous to eat it whole, tear into the dumpling while it’s on your spoon and drink the broth one cautious sip at a time. 

From gourmet pasta to dim sum delicacies, dumplings have come a long way from their humble origins. But if you’re looking for simple comfort food, it’s still hard to beat a bite-sized pillow of dough—stuffed or otherwise.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.