Eating & Drinking: Packing a punch

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The Independent Culture
COOK THEM a meat ball and they will be extremely polite and mildly interested. But wrap that meat ball in a furl of fine pastry and let it steam, boil, or fry and you have their complete and undivided attention.

It's the birthday party thing.

The pastry becomes a kind of gift wrapping that enshrouds its contents in mystery and desirability. It gives to the humble dumpling something even more appealing than aroma or taste - a sense of anticipation.

After all, half the joy of receiving a present is the tearing away of paper and ribbon. The other half is that the wrapping differentiates and individualises what is inside, making it yours and yours alone.

Any country that has had a few years to develop a food culture will have inevitably spent a good deal of those years working on its dumpling quota.

Food parcels from Italy, for example, are as romantic as they are life- enforcing, from the giant spinach-filled agnolotti of Piedmont to the plumped up little ravioli pillows filled with shredded meat or ricotta. If you're particularly lucky, the oozing inside could be a heavenly mixture of sweet pumpkin and hot mustardy preserved fruits. Add a glass or three of Soave, and the world is a perfect place.

Best of all are tortellini, tightly curled, meat-filled little gems from Bologna, that, according to legend, owe their origins to an unashamed Peeping Tommaso. One night when the goddess Venus was staying in a local tavern (as she would, no doubt), the innkeeper happened to spy her changing in her room. Entranced by her naked beauty, he proceeded to fashion a pasta-wrapped dumpling into the shape of her navel. It's a good thing she wasn't bending over at the time.

The Chinese are far more spiritual about their dumplings. The term dim sum literally means "to touch the heart". Picking favourites from a yum cha trolley laden with a Manhattan skyline of towering bamboo steamers is done with religious fervour. The most popular are good old pork-filled siu mai, the most filling are steamed roast pork buns, while the most fascinating are those amazing soup dumplings - squelchy, mini water beds filled with one type of soup, and set afloat in another.

Yet there is one dumpling by which an entire yum cha service can be judged. True Chinese gourmets will always ask for the har gau (steamed prawn dumpling) before they touch anything else. If the pastry is delicate and transluscent, if the filling contains whole prawn as well as minced, and if the dumpling contains at least seven or eight pleats (12 is nirvana), then they know that the rest of the meal will be worth staying for.

The best thing about dumplings is dumpling solidarity. They come in fours, sixes, even dozens. No dumpling, or dumpling-eater, is ever lonely, anywhere in the world. The Poles have their pirogi, the Ukrainians their vareniki, the Japanese their gyoza, and the Koreans their mandu.

It surprised me to learn that what I call a dumpling isn't what the Shorter Oxford calls a dumpling. They say it's a (usually globular) mass of dough, either boiled or baked. That means the bread, suet or oatmeal dumplings of Britain are dumplings, and my beautiful silken Italian ravioli and Cantonese har gau are not. There is only one thing I have to say to the Shorter Oxford - "Stuff it."