The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide
by Wai Hon Chu, Connie Lovatt
Publisher: William Morrow Cookbooks, Country: US
ISBN: 9780060817381, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide is one of the first books to collect dumpling recipes from around the world into a single volume. There is an excellent variety of dumpling types and flavors, the recipes are clear and there are plenty of tips for beginners. Unfortunately, a forced definition of the word dumpling as a category limits the book unnecessarily and may disappoint people who are looking for a dish they recognize as a dumpling but has been excluded.

Full review

The use of a single word for the title of a book evokes a sense of daring, as it automatically predisposes the reader to assume that the book will be authoritative. Seemingly aware of this danger, the authors of The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide, Wai Hon Chu and Connie Lovatt, immediately get down to business in the Introduction and attempt to come up with a definition for “dumpling” based on research of thousands of recipes for what may be considered a dumpling in a particular place. They felt that, as there appears to be an international family of these dishes, dumplings as a category of food needed to be defined based on common traits. Here is their definition:

A dumpling is a portion of dough, batter, or starchy plant fare, solid or filled, that is cooked through wet heat, and is not a strand or ribbon.

Already there is a problem with the attempt to retroactively define dumplings based on existing recipes, as before this definition, the authors note that:

The characteristic softness and clean taste that dumplings develop through wet heat cooking is what makes them so extraordinary. We do not feel that empanadas or fritters – because they are baked or fried – are dumplings, even if they, and similar dishes, are occasionally referred to as such.

The circular thinking that led to the definition is baffling, and I would have excused it had the world not already determined for itself that it considers some of these baked and fried things “dumplings”. The authors had hundreds of recipes that did include these dumplings, so why exclude them based on a completely arbitrary and subjective definition? As a result, people reaching for the book looking for authentic recipes for gnocco fritto (Italian fried dumplings), haam sui gaau (fried meat-filled rice flour dumpling), or empanadas will have to look elsewhere.

Another problem this definition creates is that it adopts a lot of dishes into this international dumpling family, some of which are very rarely, if ever, referred to as dumplings. Sticky Toffee Pudding, Christmas Pudding, and Steamed Cornbread can only be considered dumplings based on the stretchy definition above. What the authors have overlooked in coming up with the definition is that most people associate dumplings with a particular size, and consequently a method and ease of eating. Puddings that are to be sliced and shared like a cake are not dumplings. Should the book have been called “Steamed and Boiled Dumplings” or “Wet Dumplings and Steamed Puddings” to avoid disappointment?

Some booksellers have also been confused by the book, categorizing it under Asian Cooking. However, that is entirely their mistake and unfortunately downplays the strength of the book: it is one of the first books to collect dumpling recipes from Europe and America into one volume. You’ll find recipes such as Manti from Turkey, Tamales from Mexico, Serviettenknödel from Austria, Pamonhas from Brazil, Houskové Knedlíky from the Czech Republic, Suet Dumplings from England, Pierogi from Poland, various Ravioli from Italy, and Spätzle from Germany, among many others. There are also three recipes from Africa: Fufu, Moyin-moyin, and Yeshimbra Asa, and one recipe from Australia: Dumplings in Cocky’s Joy (erroneously also called dampers, though the latter is not traditionally cooked with wet heat). As expected, there are plenty of recipes for Asian “dumplings”, such as Ozoni and Mochi from Japan, Shao Mai and Bao Zi from China; Modak from India, Palitao from the Philippines, Apam Pisang from Malaysia, Báhn Bèo from Vietnam, and Mandu from Korea.

Though the 135 recipes in the book were selected from a wide variety of countries and regions, even limiting myself to steamed dumplings, I found the book not all that comprehensive. Har gaw (steamed shrimp-filled wheat starch dumplings) and Dango (boiled glutinous rice flour balls), for example, are not included. I feel that the book would have been more successful as an anthology if several more variations for each recipe existed (one basic recipe for Jiao Zi with several choices for fillings, for example). Some recipes are very specific and not that open to experimentation (Chestnut Gnocchi with Walnut Sauce or Cauliflower Soup with Buttery Bread Crumb Dumplings, for example).

The measurements are frustratingly in US customary units and whole numbers and vague sizes for vegetables (“4 medium baking potatoes”). Thankfully, the instructions are very clear as to the desired texture and feel of the dough for the dumplings (“work in the flour until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers”). The recipes turn out quite well and shouldn’t be a problem even for beginning dumpling-makers. The introduction is full of helpful tips on ingredients and there is an extensive illustrated section on the various dumpling folds and set-ups. Unfortunately, except for an eight-page color insert with images of the procedures and final products of selected recipes, the rest of the book does not have any photographs, which could have been useful for some of the more uncommon dumpling folds.

The authors for the most part use more traditional recipes and methods, including making your own coconut milk (they provide the appropriate measurement if using canned) and using a mortar and pestle to make mochi from glutinous rice.

The organization of the book is unique but unfortunately doesn’t work for the subject. Instead of categorizing the dumplings according to region, cooking method, morphology or course, the authors chose to divide them among the twelve months, citing the seasonality of some ingredients and the appropriateness of eating particular dumplings during hot or cold weather. I find that this is completely irrelevant in the context of eating most Asian dumplings, especially when the ingredients are not seasonal (e.g., mantou and bao zi) and they are eaten all year round. As a strange consequence, the last months of the year are almost entirely dominated by Western dumplings. The indices at the end have them neatly arranged according to country and type. There’s even an index for vegetarian dumplings. I feel that any of these categories would have been more instinctive for the reader.

The Dumpling is a well-researched work that will satisfy curious cooks looking for dumpling recipes from the Western and Eastern worlds in one book. However, one should note that it is a book with its own quirky direction and specific recipes, and in its breadth of scope, doesn’t function well as a reference.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 3. Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: Quite nice
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