The Joy of Dumplings
Why our dining critic thinks dumplings might be his ultimate comfort food, "The Little Tailor's" kreplach and our seven favorite dumplings in Pittsburgh.
photos by Laura Petrilla
When I was a child, I was a shamefully picky eater. A plate of dumplings, because I didn’t know what was stuffed inside, was a weighty proposition. In some cases, there was comfort in a dumpling; in many cases, there was terror in a dumpling. I would eat a cheese ravioli whole because I knew what was inside of it but wouldn’t move my fork for a spinach-stuffed one. Much to the embarrassment of my parents, I’d cast a wonton filling from its wrapper because I didn’t know what was mixed into the meat — and then eat the naked wrapper.
My idea of how to approach a dumpling evolved. Now, with all due respect to perfect pizza and the mighty hamburger, the dumpling for me reigns supreme among comfort foods. With their chewy wrappers and juicy fillings of savory meats, seafood, vegetables or broth, they’re both novel and nostalgic — and they’re enjoyed across cultures.
I remember the first time I tried a soup dumpling. It was 2002, and I was living in New York City performing Shakespeare, children’s theater and strange, avant-garde musicals in rundown West Village theaters. I also was awakening as a gastronome, throwing off the shackles of annoyingly picky eating. Embracing the soup dumpling was a gateway to good gastronomy.
I went with a group of friends to Joe’s Shanghai on Main Street in Flushing, a part of Queens where my culinary memories were forged by eating as often as I could at Amore Pizza in the Pathmark Plaza; big dinners cooked by my Aunt Arlene, a Jewish woman who turned Italian in the kitchen; and my Grandpa Benji lovingly force-feeding my brother and me cantaloupe and honeydew in the Mitchell Gardens apartment where my dad grew up. I didn’t care much for honeydew.
This Flushing was different. A world of eateries with roasted duck, barbecued spare ribs and sautéed snow-pea shoots, one of the first greens I came to like. And this soup dumpling — it was unlike anything else. I remember the server lifting the bamboo steamer, nine perfectly crimped purses revealed in humid, slightly sour fog. I remember clumsily using chopsticks to labor one to a spoon, awkwardly piercing the side of its chewy shell with my teeth. I sucked too hard, whoops, the fatty broth singeing my tongue. I got better at it as the evening went on, ordering a second batch and learning how to pour just the right amount of black vinegar to cut the richness of the pork and broth.
Even now, when I return to New York as a hungry eater looking to explore as much as I can, I still make time for Joe’s Shanghai and a round of soup dumplings. Today, I don’t want to know what’s in the dumpling before I eat it. I want to relish the surprise and embrace the unknown.
The dumpling is a culinary tradition; communities from Pittsburgh to Tokyo are loyal to their dumplings. At the same time, I love their versatility; sure, most local permutations have a set series of mixtures, but you really can stuff it with just about anything you have around the house. The dumpling is commonwealth; dumplings are best when they are made together.
“They’re these little gift packets, and even if you know what the filling is, each dumpling you eat is a new experience all over again,” says Andrea Nguyen, a James Beard award-winning writer and the author of “Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More.”
It doesn’t take a lot of training to learn how to make a dumpling, and its ingredients are inexpensive. Unless you’re preparing them for a restaurant, you can delight in the irregularities and imperfections of forming them.
“They don’t require special equipment. You do it mostly with your hands. They can be small children’s hands or an older person’s hands. All you need is a glass to cut out the shapes,” says Beth Kracklauer, the Pittsburgh-based food and drinks editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Off-Duty section.
Preparing a dumpling is a tactile experience. Sticky hands combine flour and water, the lump gradually becoming Play-Doh as the ingredients incorporate, followed by feeling the satisfaction of stretchiness as the dough is kneaded into a smooth mass. “It’s repetitive. It’s meditative,” says Nguyen.
When I moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago, I found comfort in another dumpling — the pierogi. One of my first food memories here was eating a large plate of them from Gosia’s pierogi stand at the now-shuttered Thursday farmers market in Bloomfield. I was feeling very lonely — the soup dumpling awakening I’d had years ago in New York was part of a series of experiences that pushed me toward Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in Food Studies — but that also left me alone in a new city. The pull of the doughy skin finished crisp in butter and the comfort of lush potato and cheese filling, all topped with slow-melted onions, helped, at least for a moment, to put me at ease.
The Tailor's Dumpling: Kreplach
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Joseph Rosenbloom didn’t bring much with him on his journey from Poland to Ellis Island to Pittsburgh in 1932. Among his few possessions were a tan wooden mixing bowl and a tapered, dark brown table leg that he used as a rolling pin. He brought those tools to prepare something he didn’t need a suitcase to transport to the new world — his kreplach recipe.
(l-r) Justin, Cheryl and Brandon Blumenfeld prepare their family’s kreplach recipe.
Kreplach is a boiled dumpling traditionally filled with minced meat or potatoes and almost always served in chicken soup (though it also is a treat rubbed with schmaltz and set under a broiler). The tasty triangles aren’t as widely known as another Jewish soup accoutrement, the matzo ball, yet their long history rings just as mighty in many eastern European Jewish kitchens as well as theose of the Jewish diaspora in the United States. “Every kreplach is basically made the same way. But everyone does something a little different with the filling,” says Rosenbloom’s granddaughter, Cheryl Blumenfeld.
Blumenfeld has fond childhood memories of the ritual around Rosenbloom’s kreplach. “The Little Tailor,” as he was affectionately known, would mix eggs, flour and salt in his wooden bowl, then knead the ingredients until they were supple. After the dough rested for a half hour, he’d press the dough with his table-leg-turned-rolling-pin until it was an eighth of an inch thick. Then, he’d let the sheets dry until supple but not brittle. He cut the dough into squares, filled them with a mix of chopped beef, onion and egg, and folded the packets into triangles before boiling them for a few minutes. “We used to sit around the table and watch him make it. For him, everything had to be just right,” says Blumenfeld.
Over the years, family recipes were shared, swapped and sometimes stolen — 40 years ago, a distant cousin swiped the recipe box of Blumenfeld’s mother, Mildred Rosenbloom, a notable baker who once won the Pillsbury Bake-Off, while the family was sitting shiva following her death. Happily, an eagle-eyed Blumenfeld spotted the box 15 years ago and took it back home with her.
Joseph Rosenbloom’s love of cooking lives on today, most prominently in the fourth generation of the Pittsburgh family with Brandon Blumenfeld, executive chef of Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill. He spent his childhood observing his paternal grandmother, Rochelle Blumenfeld, in her kitchen and learned how to cook from his mother. She taught him how to caramelize onions when he was 10. “I’d cut two onions up, caramelize them and eat them out of the bowl,” he says.
His Scratch menu is full of hyper-seasonal, comforting dishes prepared with a layered, contemporary touch. But, even if it doesn’t necessarily come across at the restaurant, his culinary roots as an Ashkenazi Jew are strong. “My grandmother died when my mom was 18. So I never got to meet her. I’d always heard she was this amazing baker and won all these awards. I asked my mom if she had any recipes, and we didn’t have them for the longest time,” says Brandon Blumenfeld, who now thumbs through the recipes and cooks one from time-to-time; he also cooks his paternal great-grandmother Rose Blumenfeld’s stuffed veal breast instead of turkey for the family’s Thanksgiving table.
As for the kreplach, it now is a family affair. Every Rosh Hashanah, Cheryl’s cousin Cookie Elbling makes the chicken soup and another cousin, Carol Wolsh, prepares the kreplach. Cheryl still uses the wooden bowl and the table leg that Rosenbloom brought with him from Poland more than 80 years ago. “Multiple people are involved in making this one dish.
Everyone has their specialty. And it’s all for one meal on one night,” says Brandon Blumenfeld.
“Jewish holidays, Jewish homes, it’s all centered around food. It’s about tradition. It’s about passing it on from generation to generation,” says Cheryl Blumenfeld.
The Little Tailor’s Kreplach
This recipe is typed on an old note card.
2/3 cup flour (about)
¼ tsp. salt
1 lb. chopped meat
1 tsp. onion juice
salt and pepper
Beat egg slightly. Add salt and enough flour to make a stiff dough. Knead very well and let stand, covered for ½ hour. Roll out very thin and spread on cloth to dry for about an hour. The dough must not be sticky, yet it must not be dry, so it will break or be brittle. Cut as desired.
Note: To finish the kreplach, cut the dough into 2-inch squares. Place a teaspoon of the beef mixture (we like an 80/20 blend) in the center of the square, fold into a triangle and press to seal. The kreplach should be cooked for three minutes in boiling water. Serve in chicken soup.
Our Seven Favorite Pittsburgh Dumplings
photos by Laura Petrilla
A dumpling is a “small mass of dough cooked by boiling or steaming.” That’s a fine definition for Merriam-Webster. But I prefer the way Mike Chen, owner of Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill, defines them. “Dumplings are thin-skinned, small and stuffed,” he says.
Chen, by the way, loves dumplings. When he was a teenager in Taiwan, he once ate 100 xiaolongbao, better known in the United States as soup dumplings, in one sitting. Respect.
Stuffed and sealed, boiled or steamed dough packets spread along the old Silk Road, the ancient network of trading routes that connected Asia and Europe. Along the way, gyoza, wonton, manti, pelmeni, zwetschgenknödel and ravioli all found places in the hearts and minds of their geographies.
Pittsburgh, of course, is best known for the pierogi. Our love of dumplings extends beyond that, however. These seven dumplings are our favorite restaurant versions of their various styles.
Celebrating the pierogi isn’t unique to Pittsburgh. No other city, however, seems to love the Polish dumplings as much as we do; costumed pierogi even battle for glory after the fifth inning of Pittsburgh Pirates home games. Naturally, it’s tough to choose a favorite.
What we love about Butterjoint, in addition to the perfectly browned-in-butter finish of the previously boiled packet, is you have the option to follow tradition with a straightforward pierogi filled with airy potato and cottage cheese plated with caramelized onion and sour cream, yet also get something that breaks with tradition in a way that seems, well, traditional.
At certain times of the year, kimchi substitutes for sauerkraut and goat merguez for kielbasa, yet the plate always feels rooted in Pittsburgh. Executive Chef/Owner Trevett Hooper and his squad work as a team every Monday to prepare the week’s haul — he says the crew makes anywhere between 500 to 700 per week, depending on the time of the year.
214 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412/621-2700, butterjoint.com
It’s believed that xiaolongbao originated in the mid-1800s in a suburb of Shanghai. The delightfully juicy dough purses weren’t well-known in the United States until 1995, when a restaurant called Joe’s Shanghai opened in Flushing, N.Y.
The crucial component of xiaolongbao is a fatty meat stock that gelatinizes at room temperature. Cubes of the soup jelly are mixed with ground pork, though crab and shrimp (or a combination of those) fillings also are typical.
Mike Chen brought xiaolongbao to Pittsburgh in 2013 when he opened Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill. Chen says that he has three staff members on weekdays and four on weekends devoted to soup dumpling preparation.
The secret to his lighter xiaolongbao is to forgo pig skin in the making of the stock, instead using a combination of giant pork bones and chicken feet. My favorite way to eat a soup dumpling is to poke a small hole in the side of the skin, gently slurp a bit of the stock and then add a dollop of black vinegar and a sliver of ginger to cut through the richness.
5875 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/421-6668, everydaynoodles.net
It’s believed that the Mongols introduced what would evolve into the pelmeni when they occupied Siberia in the 13th century. When Russians moved into the region in the 16th century, they too adopted the dumpling as part of their diet. Pelmeni’s thin skins are a simple, well-kneaded mix of flour and water, but their stuffing can contain a variety of meats and even fish or mushrooms.
Lola Bistro co-owner Yelena Barnhouse says that “every Siberian woman has their spin. It’s just like borscht.” She grew up on a pig farm but decided that she had enough of pork-filled dumplings when she left Siberia. At Lola, she and her husband, executive chef Michael Barnhouse, prepare a mix of beef, lamb and onions once a week. In Siberia, pelmeni are preserved by tossing bags out the window and into the snow.
At Lola Bistro, the juicy, ear-shaped packets are kept in the refrigerator or freezer before being boiled in salt water and served with a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of scallion oil.
1100 Galveston Ave., North Side; 412/322-1106, lola-bistro.com
Suan Cai Jiaozi
Pickled cabbage is as essential to the cuisine of Dongbei, China’s northernmost region, as it is to the sauerkraut makers of eastern Europe. It’s so integral to the cold-weather foodway that it’s mixed with chopped pork and served as the go-to celebratory food, suan cai jiaozi, during Chinese New Year festivities.
At Northeastern Kitchen in Squirrel Hill, it’s always a celebration thanks to chef You Shan Pei and his team. Several times per week, Pei kneads flour and water until it’s soft and smooth, rolls it into a cylinder, divides the roll into small pieces and presses the wrapper until thin.
It’s filled, crimped and boiled before serving with a simple vinegar dipping sauce. It’s a juicy treat with a slight hint of fermentation.
5824 Forbes Ave., Lower Level, Squirrel Hill; 412/422-2888, northeasternkitchen.com
Nepali photos by martha rial
Nepali Asian Restaurant
Momo, steamed flour and water dumplings crimped into the shape of a crescent moon, is Tibetan in origin but also a critical component of Nepali cuisine. The dumpling can be filled with a range of ingredients — mutton and yak are endemic to the region, but chicken, pork and vegetables also are favorites — mixed with onions, ginger and cilantro.
The best momo in Pittsburgh is served at Nepali Asian Restaurant in Carrick. Owner Uttam Tamang, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States as a refugee from Nepal, says his chef prepares more than 1,000 momos per week. Juicy chicken momo is popular, but I also recommend the vegetable momo — cabbage, carrot, cilantro and red onion.
The house-made achar, a dipping sauce of ground white sesame seed, tomato, ginger, cumin and cayenne, is a delightful and slightly spicy foil for the rich dumplings.
2122 Brownsville Road, Carrick; 412/980-4612
Nak Won Garden
Mandu is Korea’s version of the pot sticker and is believed to have been made on the Korean peninsula as early as the 14th century. It shares similar traits to the Chinese version — thin circles of dough stuffed, pinched into a half-moon and then steamed or boiled. At Nak Won Garden in Shadyside, owner Yank-Suk Beondy, her daughter Christina Beondy, the restaurant’s chefs and a couple of friends spend a day every two months or so preparing up to 3,000 mandu. They stuff wrappers with a blend of beef, pork, tofu, chive, cabbage, garlic and sesame, and then par-boil and cool the dumplings before freezing. Get them pan-fried for a tasty juxtaposition of crispy, tender and meaty.
5504 Centre Ave., Shadyside; 412/904-4635
Piccolo Forno chef/owner Domenic Branduzzi acknowledges that sometimes mother knows best. That’s why his mom, Carla Branduzzi, scratch-makes all the pasta for the Lawrenceville restaurant using Branduzzi family recipes first prepared in the family’s native Lucca, Italy.
Pasta selections at Piccolo Forno vary with the seasons, but there are a few standbys — including ravioli and its near-cousin, tortelli; she will shape around 400 per day in the restaurant’s basement kitchen. Ravioli rank among the best-known dumplings in the United States, with a longstanding place on nearly all Italian-American restaurant menus, though the history of the stuffed pasta goes back to at least the 14th Century in Venice. Ravioli are made by kneading egg and flour, then rolling the dough into long, thin sheets. Fillings such as meat, spinach, cheese and squash are dolloped at regular intervals and then the long sheet of pasta is draped over itself to cap the filling, gently pressed to expunge any air. The pasta maker cuts the sheets into squares, leaving space around the margins to give each square extra room to soak up sauce.
3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/622-0111, piccolo-forno.com