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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Bundles of Joy

On the humble dumpling

Hattie Klotz

What We Talk about When We Talk about Dumplings

Edited by John Lorinc

Coach House Books

232 pages, softcover and ebook

As a food writer and reviewer, raised in England and across Europe, formerly based in Canada, and now itinerant, I found my interest piqued by What We Talk about When We Talk about Dumplings precisely because I have eaten so few dumplings in my life. How does this lowly foodstuff warrant its own book, I wondered.

Dumplings, in my mind, have always been a starchy way to fill empty stomachs, to use up leftovers, to quiet the demands of hundreds of hungry preteens at boarding school. I remember them arriving pale and putty-coloured, floating atop the twice-monthly stew. They were best avoided, even by the cafeteria dustbin (me).

Now the allure of the humble dumpling has become clear to me, partly because it is a staple on the menu of every restaurant in southern Austria and northern Italy, where I am currently living, but mostly because of this collection of thirty essays that explore a global culinary culture, from Métis-style drop dumplings and Saskatoon perogies to Jamaican patties and Chilean empanadas. Part cultural guidebook, part cookbook, part love letter to childhood memories, part travel guide and history lesson — What We Talk about When We Talk about Dumplings will leave you nostalgic and salivating at the prospect of a hearty meal.

Unless, that is, you’re French.

To conclude his brief preface, the book’s editor, John Lorinc, includes a “Not-at-All Complete List of Dumplings around the World,” which features just one entry from France, the quenelle. Traditionally made from creamed pike, bread crumbs, and egg, a quenelle might also feature poultry or other meat. Regardless, it is formed into an elegant egg shape and poached in stock. But beyond Lorinc’s list and a brief mention by André Alexis, there’s no further elaboration. Perhaps in a nation so long at the sharp end of culinary creativity, imitated and assimilated globally, French home cooking just doesn’t showcase the quenelle very often. After all, pike is reasonably hard to come by, and it’s fearfully fiddly to debone.

But the matzo ball will certainly resonate for many in France and elsewhere, and this book offers readers several essays in defence of and extolling the virtues of the iconic Jewish cultural signifier. “Let’s explore how matzo ball soup — a six-ingredient wonder — became the most important recipe to generations of Jews,” the journalist and cookbook author Amy Rosen writes. “Many recipes evoke specific memories. But matzo balls evoke recurring memories. Any time Jews gather to celebrate, or to mourn, we have matzo ball soup with the people with whom we are most ourselves.” And if someone happens to have never encountered a matzo ball, Rosen kindly offers an “easy recipe” that makes a dozen.

A cultural survey of the many, many kinds of Asian dumplings might help those who are confused by the differences between gyoza, wontons, and dim sum, a term that alone encompasses over twenty varieties. Readers also get a culinary tour through the Caribbean and a short lesson in Hinduism. In a wonderful essay titled “Ask No Questions about Samosas,” Angela Misri describes dumpling making in a Calgary household run by her strong-willed and contrary Indian mother —“a maharanee who hated to be questioned.” After recounting various lessons she learned growing up — about Indian food, Canadian food, and Western society — Misri leaves readers with mouth-watering instructions for samosas and pakoras.

Appetites will also be whetted by Domenica Marchetti’s “Gnocchi Love,” which offers a quick tour of Italy’s dumplings from north to south. Finally, here’s a better idea of how canederli differ from malfatti, which are in turn quite separate from ndunderi. Those who are unable to travel the length of the country in person, eating dumplings at every meal and getting a firm grip on regional variations, might instead brave Marchetti’s four-page recipe for gnocchi di patate. It’ll be an exercise in strong nerves, as “watching a batch of handmade gnocchi dissolve into goo is a special kind of heartache.” I’d say!

Yes, What We Talk about When We Talk about Dumplings will leave you hungry. And it will leave you wanting, because it turns out that a dumpling can be the perfect introduction to a different culture and to the human condition itself. “There is, to be a bit trite, no one true dumpling,” the cultural critic Navneet Alang writes, “but there are multiple, competing narratives about what the one true dumpling actually is — including the idea that it doesn’t matter at all.” In other words, this is a food with an almost existential quality. “The question of the dumpling’s essence is frustratingly indeterminate, but then the most important things about being human tend to be. . . . What fills the dumpling can be important, but it is the narrative around it that counts — and it is only when one masticates and ruminates on both that we get closer to what is actually true.”

It turns out the dumpling, a metaphor for life, may be worth embracing after all.

Hattie Klotz is exploring the tastes of Italy.

Related Letters and Responses

Olivier Schittecatte Penticton, British Columbia