In reference to a mass of boiled or steamed dough, the word “dumpling” dates back to the 1600s in the United Kingdom's Norfolk area. While the exact origin is unknown, it is thought that the word is derived from German — or from “dump” or “lump.”
The origins of the dumpling itself goes back much further than the 17th century. The earliest record of the dish comes from China, traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD). Legend has it that a man named Zhang Zhongjing, known as the Medicine Saint, returned to his hometown in the Henan Province one winter and noticed that people's ears were frostbitten. Inspired, he decided to wrap mutton, chile and medicinal herbs in dough skin. He folded it into the shape of an ear and boiled it before giving it to the poor. The dish was called qu han jiao er tang, which means “a soup that removes cold and soothes the ears.” Thus a new comfort food was born.
According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, dumplings are more popular in colder climates. “There are three regions in which they have flourished most: England, … the much larger area of [Central] Europe (including Bavaria, Austria, Bohemia) … and the specialized habitat provided by Italy for gnocchi,” he writes. This seems to be true in Asia, especially China, as well. Dumplings are more popular in the north, where the climate is colder.
In modern Los Angeles, the dumpling can be found throughout town. Here's a guide to some of the best:
Qing Dao Bread Food: Dumplings, or Jiaozi (Northern China)
The owners of Qing Dao Bread Food come from Qingdao, a coastal city in the Northern Chinese province of Shandong. By virtue of its location, the province's culinary landscape is dominated by seafood and dough-heavy dishes. Shandong is also a hub for black vinegar, and Qing Dao makes its vinegar garlic dipping sauce in-house. There are potstickers and boiled dumplings of the regular varieties (pork and beef), plus a unique, wonderful sole dumpling stuffed with cilantro. If you're a fan, you can grab a bag of handmade frozen dumplings to take home. 301 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 312-6978.
Din Tai Fung: Soup Dumplings, or Xiao long bao (Taiwan/Shanghai)
Xiao long bao, translated literally, means “little caged bun.” It's a delicate pork dumpling with soup inside, and Taiwan's Din Tai Fung has become the gold standard for this dish. Fun note: Din Tai Fung's version is technically not a xiao long bao. It's actually a Nanjing tang bao (soup dumplings) marketed as xiao long bao. A true xiao long bao, which originates in Shanghai, has a thicker skin and not that much soup. A Nanjing tang bao, like the ones over at Din Tai Fung, is a soup-filled dumpling with a very thin skin. But of course, throughout the years, the definition of the xiao long bao has been used rather loosely. When things tastes good, no one seems to care about the dish's name. 171 Caruso Ave., Glendale; (818) 551-5561, dintaifungusa.com
Silk Road Garden: Manti (Western China)
Manti is a dumpling that hails from Xinjiang, an autonomous region located in Western China. Autonomous regions often have a high concentration of ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, that ethnic group is the Uyghur people, who are of Turkish descent. Mantis are their creation; they're dumplings stuffed with mutton and spiced with cumin seeds, coriander, carrots and onions. Note: It's known as lamb dumpling on the menu here. 18920 E. Gale Ave., Rowland Heights; (626) 999-6165, silkroadgardenca.com
Mari Vanna: Vareniki (Russia)
Mari Vanna is a whimsical, fairy tale–esque restaurant in Beverly Grove, with outposts in London, New York and Washington, D.C. It serves elevated versions of Russian classics, including the dumpling known as vareniki, or varenyky. While the vareniki is believed to have come from Ukraine, Russians consider them to be their own, and they rose in popularity throughout the country in the 19th century. At Mari Vanna, the signature vareniki is stuffed with mashed potato and sprinkled with dill. It also serves cheese-stuffed ones and versions with sour cabbage and mushrooms. 8475 Melrose Place, Beverly Grove; (323) 655-1977, marivanna.ru/la.
Himalayan Cafe: Yak Momo (Nepal)
Momo is the dumpling of Tibet and Nepal, usually stuffed with ground meat. In Nepal, yak is a common protein of choice, and Himalayan Cafe, whose owners come from Nepal, use it in their dumplings. Yak meat may be unconventional, but it's more sustainable than cows: The animals require less feed than cattle and the taste isn't too far off from beef. For dessert, finish the evening off with kheer, a Nepali-style sweet rice pudding seasoned with cardamom and nuts. 36 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 564-1560, himalayancafela.com.
Pao Jao Dumplings: Mandu (Korea)
Pao Jao, located in a food court in Koreatown, specializes in large Korean dumplings known as mandu, which are cylindrical in shape and stuffed with hefty pieces of shrimp, minced pork, mushrooms, chives and a spicy gochujang. There's a kick to the mandu, and of all the dumpling varieties on this list, it's probably the most flavorful. The mandu is thought to have entered Korea around the time of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. According to Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History, there was a popular song of that period that details the story of a mandu shop run by a foreigner of Central Asian origin. 928 Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 385-1881.
Daikokuya: Gyoza (Japan)
Yes, Daikokuya is a ramen specialist, but its gyoza is among the best in town. It's pan-fried to a crisp and stuffed with a seasoned lump of juicy pork. The gyoza is sprinkled with a hefty handful of scallions and pairs wonderfully with the noodle soups here. Gyoza is a direct derivative of the Chinese dumpling and was only introduced to Japan in the 1940s. Rumor has it that the Japanese picked up on the art of dumpling making during the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s. Today, gyoza is so beloved throughout Japan that there's an entire section of a Tokyo amusement park dedicated to the delicacy. 2208 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 575-4999, dkramen.com.
Osteria Mozza: Ravioli (Italy)
The earliest record of the ravioli dates back to the 14th century, in the preserved letters of Francesco di Marco, a merchant of Prato who described pasta stuffed with pork, eggs, cheese, parsley and sugar. The rest, of course, is history. In L.A., ravioli can be found handmade and perfectly cooked at a lot of the top-tier Italian restaurants. We recommend Osteria Mozza, the brainchild of Italian-food powerhouses Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich. They do an extremely rich version called burro e limone; it's stuffed with calf brain and sprinkled with cheese. 6602 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park; (323) 297-0100, mozzarestaurantgroup.com.
Polka Polish Restaurant: Pierogi (Poland)
Pierogi is of Slavic origins and is popular in Poland. It's traditionally stuffed with meat, cheese, sauerkraut, potatoes or mushrooms, and served with a dollop of sour cream. At Polka Polish Restaurant in Glassell Park, the pierogi comes in varied flavors: pork and chicken, sauerkraut and stewed mushrooms, potatoes and cheese, or potatoes, cheese and jalapeño. 4112 Verdugo Road, Glassell Park; 323-255-7887, polkarestaurant.com.
The Hart and the Hunter: Apple Dumpling (U.K./U.S.)
The apple dumpling originates from 17th-century Britain and rose to popularity in the American colonies. At the Hart and the Hunter, it's served as dessert, spiced with cinnamon, baked to a golden brown, topped with a melted slice of Hooks white cheddar and paired with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Swoon. 7950 Melrose Ave., Beverly Grove; 323-424-3055, thehartandthehunter.com.