x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

My love is blind in the choice of dumplings

Dumplings are all so good, it's impossible to choose a favourite.

Give me a rich chicken stock with a big, pillowy matzo ball and a few translucent kreplach with delicately pinched edges. Though they're completely different, both are dumplings, both require a light hand, and both make a quick-fix proxy for a doting grandmother if you happen to find yourself missing yours while passing by a Manhattan deli. Asking me to choose between the two kinds would be like asking me to choose my favourite kidney or thumb.

Start with starch, and the possibilities are endless. Dumplings can be steamed, boiled, fried or baked. Some dumplings envelop their fillings, such as ravioli, or a meaty wonton draped over itself like a paper crane.

Others - think gnocchi, spaetzle and kluski - are small, seasoned cakes of dough destined to be boiled. Sometimes they're sauced, sometimes they're not, and sometimes, as with the soup dumpling, they wear their sauce on the inside.

Soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, use aspic and a beautifully seasoned broth scented with spring onions, sesame oil, ginger, soy and garlic. The idea is to put the gelatinised stock inside the wrapper so that all of the aromatics permeate the meat as it cooks, while the reduced glace melts to create a soup of its own.

With all of this happening inside the dumpling, is it any wonder that they're such a popular dim sum item? When ready, pick up a soup dumpling with chopsticks, put it in your soup spoon, and then pierce it so that the soup runs into the spoon. Sip away.

Being teenaged, vegetarian and socially awkward is hard enough without compounding the experience with a ski trip to Poland when you're a terrible skier who doesn't speak Polish. I learnt to ask for pierogi ruskie - literally, Russian pierogi -boiled dumplings sautéed in butter and filled with cheese curd, onions and mashed potatoes, and topped with a sweet smattering of fried onion.

It's been 13 years since I was in Poland, but the vegetarian Ukrainian varenyky I had recently as part of a dinner party was virtually indistinguishable from the Polish version I remember. While eating them, a friend seated next to me suggested that they needed something - and I responded, "tang, acid, a sour kick". However we had no idea how to address it, so we let it go. I later learnt that our observation was neglected on a much larger scale: vinegar is often added to the sour cream used for dressing Russian dumplings.

No dumpling ever made a greater impression on me - both literally and physically - than a Slovakian-style strapacka, which I gorged on in quantity in 2006 at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Budapest. Unlike the more traditional Hungarian dumplings called galuska, which are made with flour, these were made with potatoes and ewe's cheese, and topped with an entire quivering lobe of seared foie gras. The first slice into the liver yielded a generous stream of liquid gold, instantly saucing the dumplings. We spent the rest of the day on foot, but in the evening, no less than 10 seconds after crossing the threshold back into my hotel room, the ghost of the dead goose wreaked its revenge, reducing me to the foetal position on the bathroom floor, shaking and sweating while my rib cage tightened around me like a vice. In my feverish state, I dreamt that I wept oil. And for the rest of the week, I felt like it was running through my veins like engine grease.

I have a special fondness for tiny Siberian dumplings called pelmeni. The "village-style" version I had in a Russian restaurant in Estonia were exquisite little half-moons, filled with seasoned ground lamb and baked beneath a lid in a forest mushroom sauce. Pelmeni can also be served deep-fried as a zakuska item. Pelmeni in chicken or duck consommé can be served with a "mustard" of raw egg yolks, mustard and vinegar to be stirred in later.

While on a food crawl in New York City last summer, my consort and I scoffed Korean dumplings stuffed with kimchee at Mandoo Bar in Murray Hill. Later my consort reminisced about some of the most delicious-sounding dumpling dishes of all time, including manti, the ubiquitous dumplings of Turkey and central Asia. The wheat flour pasta dough is filled with hand-minced raw lamb, onion, garlic, herbs, seasonings, and tiny cubes of cold butter. The filling is placed in the centre of the round dough skins and then wrapped with a firm twist at the top. As the manti cooks, the butter steams into the lamb, cooking it and forming a luxurious sauce. The finished dish is served with a dollop of labneh.

The definition of a dumpling can be relaxed, too: Georgian khachapuri, a filled bread dish, leavened bread, cheese and egg. Or Japanese takoyaki, a savoury ball-shaped dumpling of baby octopus, dashi-flavoured batter, spring onions, tempura bits, pickled ginger, sauced with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce, and showered with salty bonito flakes and briny strips of seaweed. Or Chinese jaozi, the predecessors to Japanese gyoza.

There are countless incarnations and variations to love: shumai with a coriander black vinegar dipping sauce; Nepalese momo; empanadas from tiny bodegas; potstickers that have been simultaneously steamed and fried so that the bottom gets caramelised and crisp while the top remains tender and steamy; fat Thai-style chicken and shrimp dumplings with tree ear mushrooms, water chestnuts, and an oyster sauce-based dipping sauce.

"Dumpling" is also one of the greatest terms of endearment of all time. It is difficult to pick just one, which is why I have to say my favourite dumpling is usually just the one I happen to be reaching for.