How dumplings link Caribbean and Chinese cuisine

Dishes are very much a product of their environment, which is why meals that feature the same basic ingredients can adopt their own distinctive characters across continents. The dumpling is perhaps the best example of how a basic format of food can be shaped into a dish that becomes the taste of several different cultures. …

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Dishes are very much a product of their environment, which is why meals that feature the same basic ingredients can adopt their own distinctive characters across continents. The dumpling is perhaps the best example of how a basic format of food can be shaped into a dish that becomes the taste of several different cultures. The simplicity of the dough-and-filling premise leaves lots of room for creativity from chefs placing their own flavoursome spin on the dish.

The origin of the dumpling remains uncertain, and there may never be total clarity on that subject. Ken Albala, food historian at the University of the Pacific, told NPR that he has speculated on the existence of prehistoric dumplings, although we can say with more confidence that dumplings had been popularised by the time of the Tang dynasty in 8th century China. The simplicity of the dish makes it unsurprising that it caught on across the world, but many people continue to associate dumplings most closely with Asian cuisine.

Dumplings are a staple of dim sum, a popular form of Asian cuisine. Dim sum prioritises diverse flavours over size — for example, a dim sum meal features a variety of bite-sized portions. Some people prefer seafood dim sum, enjoying their dumplings crammed full of prawns. Others prefer the kind of pork taste that shines in the Steam Dim Sum Sui Mai dish at the Singapore Restaurant (Worcester, England). But most importantly and regardless of filling, the benefit of such a serving method is that it is conducive to sharing a meal between several guests, each with their own individual palates and often taking place around the family dining table at home.

Across the Caribbean, dumplings are often enjoyed as an accompaniment to callaloo and saltfish. Just as different parts of the world put their own spin on the dumpling, the popular Caribbean dish callaloo sees variation from island to island. While dumpling often has a starring role in a Chinese dinner, in the Caribbean it can become part of the supporting cast to breakfast. This is testament to the dumpling’s versatility, as well as an indication of how a small and simple food can provide links between Caribbean and Chinese cuisines.

Dumplings have ultimately extended their influence all over the world, but there are more specific examples of how Chinese food has become popular in the Caribbean. An influx of Chinese workers to the Caribbean in the 19th century brought many classic Chinese flavors to a new audience, with those dishes still widely available today. Chow Mein was well-liked among those Chinese workers because of its simplicity, with easy accessibility to the dish’s two basic ingredients of noodles and stock. That simplicity is still appreciated today, although those basic ingredients can provide a springboard to introduce some more complex flavors.

It is remarkable how something as simple as a dumpling can link different parts of the world together. While all cultures introduce their own flavors to the dish, whether as dim sum or as support to callaloo, there is something universally appreciated about the simplicity of a dumpling.