Whatever its origins, dumplings are a universal dish. ‘Anywhere you find wheat, you will find people boiling it and eventually figuring out how to make thin sheets and either wrap fill, boil or bake them,’ says Ken Albala, Professor of History and Food Studies at the University of the Pacific.
Food historians avoid specifying the exact place and time for the invention of dumplings; they suggest it originated in different geographies at different times. However, archaeological evidence from north-western China seems to indicate that wheat flour-wrapped dumplings have existed since at least the 3rd century BCE. As they resemble yuan bao, which means ‘precious treasure’ in Chinese, eating dumplings is still a symbol of wealth, luck, and prosperity in China today. According to Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the steamed mantou of northern China evolved into a stuffed pasta, which later became widespread in Europe.
Jewish cuisines from Eastern Europe to North Africa
When we say ‘Jewish cuisine’, of course we are not talking about a single cuisine. Roughly, it incorporates a wide range of cooking traditions, from Ashkenazi among those of Central and Eastern Europe; Sephardi among those of the Iberian Peninsula; and Mizrahi among Jews of Middle Eastern, North African and Arab origin; as well as Iranian, Yemeni, Indian, Ethiopian and Central Asian cuisines. With diasporic influence, Jews have maintained the food traditions they brought with them, but their eating habits have also been shaped by their geography, climate, ingredients and localities. In other words, they remain true to tradition, while also transferring their ability to adapt onto their dinner tables.
We encounter a common dumpling culture in all Jewish cuisines; we see them used in both daily fare and in festive dishes. Dumplings require effort, patience, time, and skilful hands. This can be considered to symbolise the tradition of solidarity, transmission and sharing, especially among women (a tradition they keep alive by teaching their daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters).
The best-known Jewish dumplings are the Ashkenazi kreplach, which are made by filling a thin, silky dough made of flour, water, and eggs. The popularity of this dumpling, which originated in Central and Eastern Europe, has never waned since the Middle Ages. Besides meat or chicken, kreplach can also be prepared with mashed potato or other fillings and are served in a boiling-hot chicken broth. Chicken bone marrow, meat around the bones, thin bones, fat and skin are all mixed with mashed potato and caramelised onions; the filling is wrapped in thin dough, then boiled in chicken broth before serving. This type of dumpling elevates humble ingredients into a feast, enriching the table, especially during the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. This soup is also frequently consumed at the dinner that takes place the evening before Yom Kippur. The sweet cheese-filled variety is served especially during Shavuot, when it is traditional to eat dairy products and milk desserts. The fried version is popular during Hanukkah, as it references the miracle of oil.
Varying tastes in different geographies
German Jews eat their own versions of the steamed germknödel and dampfnudel, which are sweet and filled with fruit. Russian Jews boil meat-stuffed pelmenis. Poles eat sauerkraut (a type of pickled cabbage) and pierogis stuffed with potatoes or sour cherries, while Ukrainians eat vareniki. On Shavout, Italian Jews prepare cheese-filled calzone (a half moon-shaped pastry).
Iranian Jews prepare gondi. They use leftover chicken and chickpeas (or chickpea flour) for the filling, and cardamom and turmeric as spices. They garnish the soup with fresh lemon juice and coriander leaves when serving. Perfectly tart, gondis are served on Friday evenings during Shabbat dinner, paired with an herb plate called sabzi khordan. The underlying philosophy is to combine a more expensive ingredient with an economical one such as vegetables and chickpeas in order to maximise the amount of food.
One of the best-known dishes of the Dagestan Jews, who often use the technique of frying in oil, is kurze. This meat-filled dumpling is also very popular in Azerbaijan. The dough on the outside is soft and light, and its juicy filling melts in the mouth. Although it is traditionally made with minced lamb or beef, there is also a vegetarian option made with vegetables, fresh herbs, and cheese. The most important characteristic of this dumpling is that the edge is braided, which requires experience. It is eaten hot, with a garlic and vinegar dipping sauce. Kurze can also be fried; when a steamed kurze is fried, it becomes crispy and juicy. I would be surprised if anyone could stop after eating just a few; if you are one of those who can’t resist, like me, you can also eat a big plate of them as a main course.
A Middle Eastern speciality originating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Eastern Anatolia, domeh (kibbeh, kobebah) are handmade dumplings with meat or vegetables stuffing put in shells made of semolina or bulgur. As with all dumplings, we see in this dish the effort to produce more by including less meat in order to avoid waste and feed large families economically. Domeh, which we call içli köfte in Turkey, is traditionally served in different soups. Beetroot is used, like in borscht; there are also other types, like green hamusta soup prepared with chard, celery, courgette, garlic, and lemon juice, as well as other sweet and sour ones with tomatoes, okra, potatoes and aubergine.
The most iconic Jewish dumpling is kneydlekh, known as the ‘matzah ball’, which is made from unleavened dough. During the Passover commemoration, bread and leavened foods are not consumed in honour of the emancipation from slavery in Egypt, and to pass the tradition on to the next generations. Matzah is eaten instead, which is a thin, crispy wafer with perforations; it is made with flour and water but not yeast. The matzah dumpling, which is served in a chicken soup, is prepared by grinding matzah to a powder then moistening it with water and mixing the dough with eggs and oil. A good example of the ‘cuisine of the poor’ and also of ‘no-waste cooking’, these dumplings are prepared with cheap and readily available ingredients, and they are both satisfying and nutritious.
My grandmother’s loving bimuelikos
Now let’s talk about the dumplings prepared by the Turkish Sephardic Jews: Mantikos are prepared from leavened bread by the Jews of Çanakkale; the minced meat-filled dumplings of Izmir Jews are called saludodas; stale-bread dumplings stuffed with tarama are called albondigas…
The most vivid and colourful among my food memories is of my grandmother Elisa’s famous bimuelikos. For my grandmother, food was an expression of love. In fact, it was like that for all women of that period. They didn’t just go into the kitchen to feed their families; the food was nourishing, but the act of cooking was also a way to show their love.
Bimuelikos! Even its name is exotic, isn’t it? The word is thought to originate from the Spanish buñuelos. From 1492, Sephardic people fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in many countries around the world, a great majority of them in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. It is natural that people bring their languages and food cultures with them. The Spanish buñuelos is bimuelos in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). The suffix ‘-ikos’ is the diminutive. Although almost every family has its own recipe for this dish, it is basically small, fried dumplings/bites.
These little unleavened morsels, eaten during Passover, are prepared from matzah. Bimuelikos are fried in oil; once they are perfectly golden, they are tossed into a pre-boiled syrup of honey and sugar, then sprinkled with sugar/cinnamon. I associate every Passover with this dessert, and I’m not satisfied with just cinnamon: I even add a glossy fondant sweet with kaymak (clotted cream) called şarope blanko on top. This dessert blows up your taste buds, bringing old holiday feasts to life in my memory.
Pieces of leftover matzah go into a seven-welled pan
These dumplings were a life lesson not only because of their taste, but also the way they were prepared, which involved collecting broken, leftover pieces of matzah. There was also a special frying pan with seven wells, into which the dough was poured. After a few minutes they would puff up nicely, winking, ‘Come on, turn me over now’. The golden fried bimuelikos balls would be set on some paper napkins to drain the excess oil.
These bites were often eaten at breakfast, with meals, with coffee, and at tea time. The savoury version was eaten with plenty of grated kaşar cheese. It was also used in place of bread, especially to soak up sauce left on the plate during the Passover feast.
I hadn’t seen these seven-welled pans in years until one Christmas day while I was in Denmark. At a culinary school that I visited, I was offered very tasty, small desserts with mulled wine. When I asked, ‘How is it made?’, they told me, ‘Our chef is inside, we can show you.’ And what would I see there? My grandmother’s seven-welled aluminium bimuelos pan! Although the content of the dessert was a bit different, the preparation was the same. When the chef saw the surprised expression on my face, he asked why; he was very surprised when I told him my story. He told me that the dessert I’d eaten, æbleskiver, was a traditional Danish dessert; he explained its content and how it was made, but added that he didn’t know the origin of the pan. For me, this discovery was like being transported many years back in time. What would my late grandmother think if she knew her pan was used in Denmark? In later years I also saw that Japanese takoyaki (fried dumplings with octopus) was prepared in similar cast-iron pans.
Spain, Turkey, Denmark and Japan… These beautiful experiences were moments of culinary sisterhood.
My grandmother’s famous bimuelikos are small, fried dough/balls; they are eaten during the Passover celebrations.
Ingredients (for 16 pieces)
3 sheets of matzah
Honey (or sugar)
1 vanilla stick (cut open and use the seeds inside)
Juice of ½ lemon
Bring the honey, water, lemon juice, and vanilla to a boil, then remove from heat and leave to cool.
Divide the matzah sheets into halves and place in a bowl filled with warm water. Squeeze well and mash when soft. Beat the eggs and combine them with the dough. Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan. Take a spoonful of the mixture and fry it in the hot oil. When you first drop the mixture in the oil, it will sink. Once it comes back up to the surface, it is fried. Also, don’t overfill the pan, and do the frying in batches. Drain on a paper napkin. Toss the hot bimuelikos in the warm syrup. Wait for the bimuelikos to absorb the syrup. Drain, and sprinkle cinnamon on top, then serve.
* Instead of matzah, you can use leftover toast, cake, or buns.
* Don’t throw away the outer pod of the vanilla bean; put it in the sugar jar, it will give your sugar a wonderful vanilla flavour and aroma.
Mantikos is a dumpling dish originating from the Çanakkale Sephardic culture. Bread dough from a bakery is kneaded to make ball-shaped dumplings similar to poğaça. The filling is prepared with onion and cheese, spinach, or minced meat.
1 loaf of ready-to-use bread dough
200 ml of olive oil
100 ml of water
2 egg yolks
For the filling:
4 onions (finely chopped)
200 grams of feta cheese (Ezine cheese, if possible)
½ bunch of dill (finely chopped)
Freshly ground black pepper or red chilli flakes (as desired)
A few tablespoons of olive oil
Preheat your oven to 180°C.
Boil water with some oil. Pour it over the dough, which you put in a large, deep tray. Soften the dough by kneading it with the liquid.
Prepare the filling: Fry the finely chopped onions in oil, then let them cool on a plate. Crumble the cheese and mix it with the finely chopped dill and onions, which still somewhat warm. Mix in black pepper or chilli flakes to taste.
Take small pieces of dough and roll them out in your hand. Place the filling in the middle and close it like a parcel. Brush the top with egg yolk and place it on a greased baking tray with the folded side down. Bake until the top is golden brown.
Kreplach is a dish that warms both the stomach and the heart. It is a culinary heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation through grandmothers’ recipes that include descriptions like ‘a pinch of’, ‘a fistful of’, ‘as much as it takes’ and ‘the consistency of an earlobe’. It takes time to make, so is usually prepared on special occasions and holidays, but the result is worth the effort.
A speciality of Ashkenazi cuisine, kreplach can be made with a variety of fillings, including leftover boiled chicken parts, ground beef and onions, leftover meat or roast beef, cheese, or fresh herbs, to name a few.
Ingredients (for 35–40 pieces)
5 tablespoons of olive oil
300 grams of flour (sifted)
200–250 grams of boiled chicken (shredded into small pieces)
½ bunch of dill (or parsley)
1 onion (finely chopped)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet at medium heat. Place the chopped onions in the pan and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
Prepare the kreplach dough: In a bowl, beat 3 eggs and 3 tablespoons of olive oil until frothy.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, add 200 grams of flour and a teaspoon (10 grams) of salt. Form a well in the middle and add the egg mixture. Stir with a fork. Slowly add the remaining flour, one tablespoon at a time, and continue mixing until you get a soft dough. When the dough thickens, knead it using your hands. When you have a soft, slightly sticky dough, let it rest for 20 minutes.
Put the boiled, shredded chicken pieces in a food processor. Add the sautéed onion, chopped dill and 2 tablespoons of fat skimmed from the chicken broth (see the chef’s tip below). Pulse the food processor a few times; the goal is for the ingredients to retain their texture, not to purée them. Move the chicken mixture to a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Flour the countertop a bit. Take half the dough out of the bowl and cover the remaining half with a slightly damp cloth so that it doesn’t dry out. Lightly flour your rolling pin and thinly roll out the dough. First cut it into strips 7 cm wide, then cut the strips into 7 cm squares. Add any remaining scraps to the other half of the dough and repeat the process.
Put a teaspoon of the chicken filling in the middle of each square. Wet your finger and run it around the edges of the dough. Close by folding one corner to the other to form a triangle. Cook in boiling chicken broth for 15–20 minutes. Serve hot in the broth.
If you are going to prepare chicken for this recipe, boil a whole chicken with chopped carrots (3 large), chopped celery (5 stalks), parsley, salt, black pepper, 2 bay leaves, and 3 cloves. Your chicken will be delicious. Drain the water you boiled the chicken in into jars and refrigerate. Use both the chicken broth and the fat that collects on the surface in this recipe.
Translation by Janine Su
- Yuan bao was the name of a boat-shaped gold or silver bullion used as the Chinese imperial currency since the Qin dynasty.
- Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (New Jersey: John Wiley).
- Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (New York: Knopf, 1996).
- This is the most sacred of religious days in Judaism, the Day of Atonement, during which one fasts for 25 hours.
- This is the anniversary celebration of the Prophet Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.
- The Festival of Lights; it is celebrated with a lighting of candles over eight days.
- Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem: A Cookbook (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2012).
- Notice that when the diminutive suffix -ikos is added to the Turkish word mantı (dumpling) to suggest the dumplings are tiny.
- Viki Koronyo and Sima Ovadya, Sephardic Cookbook, trans. Leyla Bali Adato (İstanbul: Gözlem Kitap, 2012).