- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

Pity the poor dumpling. As culturally ubiquitous as bread itself, these delectable morsels of starch once were celebrated, but now often get a bad rap. Think dumpling, and the words "heavy" or "pasty" come to mind. And these days, does anyone wish to be called someone's "little dumpling"?
But winter's cold has a way of turning people's minds toward the simple and satisfying, even toward the suet-laden New England dumplings that rolled from Barlow's pot, and certainly toward the lighter varieties from warmer climates.
"It's comfort food," says Beltsville resident Donna Drake, who is known around her neighborhood for her special Jamaican dumplings. "It fills you up and warms you up at the same time."
Dumplings are cool. For one thing, as Washington's ethnic map diversifies, so does the variety of dumplings available. Asian-style dumplings, like Japanese goyza or Chinese pot stickers, are now so common you can find them in your local supermarket. German hefeklosse or Korean mandu tuikim are almost as popular.
Dumplings go by many names. Italy has its canederli, Siberia its pelmeni, Jamaica its fried johnnycakes. But no matter what they're called, they remind people of home, wherever that is because whatever the cultural or ethnic heritage, all people have a dumpling in their past.
In this country, Indians in the Carolina and Virginia colonies taught the first settlers how to make corn dumplings, which the mostly English settlers fixed with greens in soups or stews.
Later, European immigrants brought their version of dumplings with them. From the Germans there were kneppes flour, egg and milk dumplings served with grated cheese or liver dumplings, popular in Bavaria. The Austrians brought noukles, the French quenelles, the Jews matzo balls. Even Yorkshire pudding might be considered a kind of dumpling. The American Southwest is famous for its "blue balls," dumplings made with blue cornmeal.

So forget the bad press. In the right hands, there's nothing better, or lighter, than a dumpling. What's the secret?
"A good, basic recipe," says Frank Ruta, chef of Palena Restaurant in Cleveland Park. "Fresh ingredients. A good light hand you can't work the dough too much. And you have to make sure everything is well seasoned."
Beyond the basics is a world of possibilities. There are savory dumplings filled with meat or cheese, and sweet dumplings, often made with fruit purees, that can be perfect for a cold winter night.
Whether sweet or savory, dumplings can be filled or not filled; boiled, baked or fried; take hours to put together or just a few short minutes from bowl to pot. They can be round, flat, semicircular or cork-shaped.
"Everybody has a version of dumplings," says Alla Kats, co-owner and chief cook at European Bazaar in Rockville. The 15-year-old food store specializes in providing fresh and frozen remembrances of home to emigres from the former Soviet bloc.
"Sometimes you have to look at what people are eating with them (dumplings) to realize what region they're from," Mrs. Kats says.
Regardless of preparation, accompaniment, or the filling factor, however, all good dumplings share a common characteristic: grandmothers. Everybody has one, and just about every dumpling maker credits his or her grandmother as the key to dumpling-making excellence.
"She made it and I made it with her," says Mrs. Kats, remembering how her grandmother taught her to make dumplings, without a recipe and by feel.
Mrs. Drake of Beltsville credits her grandmother, Myriel, with teaching her to make two kinds of Jamaican dumplings, one kneaded and the other lightly beaten, back home in Portland, Jamaica.
And even Mr. Ruta, whose dumplings unabashedly approach haute cuisine in both ingredients and presentation, remembers the canederli made by his grandmother in the days when his whole family lived together in a house outside of Pittsburgh. She would start with day-old bread cubed up with eggs, onions, prosciutto, or anything else that was on hand. The result could be poached in broth or fried in oil. They were, in Mr. Ruta's word, "wonderful."
Mrs. Drake remembers coming home from school to the aroma of freshly fried dumplings.
"It was like eating a cookie, now" she says. "You'd put down your books, sit down at the table, and eat some."
Mrs. Drake's johnnycakes or fried dumplings are simple and easy to put together, which is why on busy days she's likely to come home from work and mix up a batch of dumplings and corned beef hash, a family favorite. She also serves them with onions and salt cod, boiled bananas or yams.
"I love them," says daughter Devon, 16. "Most of my family make them, but she makes them lighter than anyone. They're just the right size, too."
There's just one problem. Mrs. Drake's husband, LaMarvin, calls them biscuits. He's American.
"He cuts them open and puts jelly on them," Mrs. Drake says disgustedly. "I told him he can't go to my grandmother's house and let her see that."
It's true, Mrs. Drake's dumplings are a bit biscuity, but with a complexity not often found in an ordinary biscuit. They are light and crunchy, with just a hint of sweetness.
Just don't expect Devon to set about making any dumplings any time soon.
"I can eat them, but I can't make them," she confesses. "I just wait for mom."

If you can't wait for mom, you can get the next best thing at the Kats' European Bazaar. "We have a little something for everyone," says co-owner Felix Kats, who goes to New York every week to pick out the best kielbasa, moskovskaya (a double-smoked kielbasa), smoked sturgeon and smelts, among other delicacies.
There's sausage from Poland and caviar from the Baltic. You can pick up a cake or some freshly baked pirozhki, filled with meat, cabbage, and potatoes, straight from the oven. You can even buy a bottle of Josef Stalin's favorite mineral water, Borjomi. Mr. Kats said Stalin liked the water so much he used to bathe in it.
And always, there is the farmer cheese. That's what you need to make cheese dumplings. But you don't have to go through that process at home if you don't want to.
"We make the traditional time-intensive foods, like dumplings or pig in aspic," says Oksana Sevostyansova, a co-owner with the Katses for the last four years. "Even those that are not so time intensive we make, so you won't have to."
Area Russian Orthodox churches frequently order Mrs. Kats' Siberian dumplings, called pelmeni, for their church bazaars. She routinely cooks up mammoth batches of the tortellini-shaped dumpling that is filled with beef, pork, mutton and poultry, for sale at church fund-raisers.
The process takes all day, beginning with grinding the various meats.
"It's a lot of work but it returns to you," says Mrs. Kats, who admits she enjoys chatting with customers nearly as much as she likes cooking.
If you don't want to eat your dumplings right away, European Bazaar also sells many types of frozen dumplings, filled with cheese, meat or some combination of the two.
Mr. and Mrs. Kats are both now American citizens; Miss Sevostyansova expects to become a citizen next month. Many customers are now citizens.
"Watch what they get to put on their dumplings, and you can tell where they grew up," Miss Sevostyansova says.
"Some people eat them with sour cream and black pepper, some with butter, some with vinegar. It all depends on which region you come from."
But don't expect any political discussions. With so many different traditions and ethnic groups converging on the store, the owners take great pains to ensure that everyone feels comfortable.
"We don't think about the president, we sell sausages," says Mrs. Kats firmly.
And they are more than willing to share another secret of good dumpling making.
"We can give you the recipe, but this recipe doesn't have your heart and your soul," says Mr. Kats. "You have to add that to make your own pelmeni."

Of course, it is possible to dress up a dumpling so much that your grandmother will hardly recognize it. At Palena, Mr. Ruta serves up versions of Italian canederli that take the lowly dumpling to new heights.
One winter favorite is made from beef marrow. It's smaller than a golf ball, and Mr. Ruta floats it in a rich oxtail consomme. Another is a cheese version, made from ricotta or goat cheese and poached gently in salted water before being garnished with a sauce made from seasonal sauteed mushrooms.
The process begins with egg yolks, which Mr. Ruta beats for nearly an hour before they are ready to be mixed with bread crumbs, goat cheese and later, egg whites. The result is formed gently into quenelle-shaped ovals with the help of a heated spoon, chilled, and poached carefully is just boiling water.
Dressed with butter, toasted bread crumbs, and sauteed mushrooms, the canederli are so popular that regulars request them even when the dumplings are not on the menu that day.
"They're not as heavy as other dumplings," says Mr. Ruta, who doesn't want to share his carefully crafted recipe. "They're more sophisticated than those rustic dumplings from home."
Starting this month, Mr. Ruta plans to add a new dumpling made with a special sheep's milk ricotta imported from Rome. He's also put polenta dumplings, rolled in melted butter and cinnamon sugar, and served with a fruit puree, on his dessert menu.
Clearly, it may be time to consider this perfect-for-winter comfort food. Don't pity the poor dumpling. Try one.


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