Ethnoculinology — Every Culture has its Dumpling

For Victoria’s Day, I’d like to start with an homage to the great city of Toronto. It’s an incredibly multicultural city and living sandwiched between Koreatown and Chinatown has its benefits. One of the serious perks of living in the global community is access to global food. Every culture can spell delicious and tasty food comes in many, many different flavours.

Despite disparate cultures and ingredients, certain themes seem to prevail across the globe. Just about every culture has a dumpling. Gyoza, har gao, perogies, kreplach, mandoo, ravioli, wontons, samosas, the list goes on. Wrap veggies/meat/seafood in dough. Bake, boil, or fry it. Everyone’s happy. Dumplings are an amazing food because they aren’t necessities — they are pure culinary luxury. Making dumplings is time consuming and labour intensive. Unlike other food inventions like cheese or dried fruit, dumplings don’t preserve food, they just enhance its enjoyment. And yet, we see dumplings in many different cuisines. Maybe deliciousness is just part of our DNA.

Xiao Long Bao — Shanghai style soup dumplings are delightful and complicated. They depend on agar agar, an ingredient derived from algae that gels cold and melts when steamed so the dumplings can be filled while jelled but melt for a burst of soupy goodness. (Photo from: http://www.absolutechinatours.com/china-cuisine/Xiaolongbao.html)

When you look at a lot of food you often start to notice culinary themes. Sometimes these are borne of necessity — dried and smoked foods could be preserved for longer than fresh ones. Sometimes it’s a happy accident like an animal skin that’s used to store milk which, upon second inspection, has become cheese. (Dairying plays a fascinating role in human history, food is an uncoupleable part of human history.) Sometimes it’s for quality — hamburgers and hot dogs present a way to mechanically tenderize tough cuts of meat. And sometimes, it’s just whimsy. Celebration. Food. Family. Harvest. Life.

Ravioli fritti (Image source: Heb.com)

As a food scientist, I often think about what it means to ‘invent’ food. Compared to history, lots of foods are pretty new and yet, for better or worse, many have become entwined in our culture. Soylent, breakfast cereal, sandwiches, white bread, canned tomatoes, sliced olives — invented foods are all around.

I grew up on my Nona’s spinach and cheese bourekas. Maybe not exactly what you think of when I say ‘dumpling’ but they still fit the theme. Portuguese bacalao or salted cod cakes are, in a sense, dumplings too though we’re starting to get into pie territory. (Image from: http://bourekasetc.com/product/spinach-bourekas/)

Creating foods from bugs straddles a line between the traditional and the futuristic. Insects have been a part of our food history for millennia but they haven’t integrated deeply into most cultures. It’s an exciting prospect because it’s an invitation to create new foods and new culture. A few months ago I got to make my own cricket dumplings. They’re whimsical too.

Cricket shu mai with kelp caviar. Modern variations on a time-tested themes.

There’s lots more to come.

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