No broth, no ball; no ball, no beef," announces Mr Holbrook over lunch in Elizabeth Gaskell's 19th-century novel, Cranford. It's a rule many of her readers would have been all too familiar with. Like most meat in those days, beef was a luxury, so the idea behind dishing the broth and dumplings first was to ease the pain of your lamentably small slice. For centuries, this has been the dumpling's main role – in Britain, and across the rest of the world, where you'll find dumplings of all shapes and sizes bulking out meat, cheese and vegetables. Yet in the last year or so, in London, this quintessential poor person's food has been elevated to cult status: a status that in some places borders on the gourmet.
It's quite the turnaround. In Britain, in the 1980s and 1990s, dumplings pretty much meant one thing and one thing only: balls of suet, served by your grandmother. How well you liked them invariably depended on how good a cook she was. Today, though, the word can mean anything from pierogi to dim sum.
"I like British dumplings, but they are fundamentally different to those from China or Turkey," says Angela Clutton, food historian and dumpling lover. "There are similarities; the dough, the starch, the serving of them in broth or stew – but ours are not parcels." Where the xian bing of Xu, the manti of Yosma, and the khinkali made by Ukrainian-born Olia Hercules are frilled, finely twisted artworks in dough form, our dumplings are, as the name suggests, rather dumpy. You won't find #suetdumplings trending on Instagram.
"They're not elegant. In and of themselves, they aren't necessarily attractive," Clutton continues. Where Hercules' dumpling 'grams garner more likes than anything else she posts, the humble British variety defies even the kindest filter.
"The Guardian's Felicity Cloake rightly points out that brown food is often the tastiest, though it rarely photographs well," she adds – and our dumplings are resolutely brown. When we do eat them (and for most of us, they remain the preserve of the maternal table) it is not because we want something modern, but because we don't: "They are nostalgic. We eat them because they've a traditional place in our hearts," she continues. Even Clutton, a keen cook and food writer, has avoided making British dumplings, "because I know they will never be as good as my mum's."
And yet, like many of us, Clutton has made gyoza. She's devoured dim sum and been fascinated by Hercules' reinvention of the dumplings of Eastern and Central Europe. "We're interested in new takes on international cuisines, but we're shy of doing it in our own country."
The time is right for British dumplings to be included in modern food culture
If British dumplings have fallen from grace (and there are those who will fiercely argue they haven't) it's for the same reason all our traditional staples suffered in the late 20th century: the dawn of convenience food and the decline in the quality of raw ingredients. It's the same sins that sent scotch eggs into the dark ages, she continues – and look how the hipsters have turned those bad boys around. "If they can come back, it's not impossible that the dumpling can. Internationally, we are increasingly interested in peasant food and updated versions of it. I think the time is ripe for our dumplings to be incorporated into our modern food culture."
Fortunately, there is no shortage of places demonstrating how to do just that: from Yosma's braised lamb neck manti to Ginza Onodera, where Ryosuke Kishi fills gyoza with wagyu beef. The latter are served with black truffle oil and come in at £25 a portion. It's peasant food, but not as Japanese peasants would ever have known it. "It is the ingredients that elevate this dish, as it is very simple" Kishi explains. Yosma's chef Hus Vedet, meanwhile, makes no bones about manti's humble origins, although his luxurious versions do have a historic precedent. For centuries manti were a favourite of the sultans of Istanbul, whose soldiers had pinched the recipe from Asia during the Ottoman empire. "By law, the soliders had the right to knock on doors, demand the recipe of food they liked, and bring it back to the palaces."
From there, manti percolated through the city, and on the streets became what they had always been: a means of making meat go further. "You take 100g of lamb, put it in some manti and suddenly you've got two kilos of dinner – and it's filling," says Vedet. Even today you'll find dedicated manti cafés packed full of people looking for a cheap, satisfying lunch. Indeed, local custom dictates that a Turkish woman has to spend the day with her future mother-in-law, demonstrating her manti skills before she can marry him. "The smaller the manti, the better the bride-to-be. The ideal bride can fit 40 on a tablespoon." Needless to say, this is not a goal to which his high-end Marylebone restaurant particularly aspires.
"I make mine slightly larger – a bit more luxurious." After all, you don't go to the trouble of butchering and braising a lamb neck for no one to taste the filling, he points out. Yet even Vedet has been surprised by how his popular his 'premium' manti have become. "I guess they look pretty on the plate, with the chilli, mint and yoghurt dressing – but I was still surprised when they became a sensation. We even did a manti month in July last year." Lobster and garlic cream; aubergine and lemon yoghurt – this was manti like we'd never seen them before, and when the month culminated in a manti masterclass it sold out rapidly. He'd never get away with such flavours in Turkey, Vedet acknowledges – "we're worse than the Italians when it comes to being sticklers for tradition" – but London's foodies couldn't get enough.
Nor is it just the high-end dumplings we're falling for these days. Down in Elephant and Castle, no-frills Polish restaurant Mamuska has become something of an institution. "We sell pierogi by the hundreds!" says Mamuska's Kasia Kozlowska: half moon, crescent-shaped parcels, filled then "boiled and topped with fried onion, sour cream and crispy bacon." They're no health food, but it hasn't stopped Londoners on other side of the river queuing for 20 minutes or more for pierogi at Rafael Paszenda's Camden Market stall.
"It's all about the soothing, comforting feeling you get when eating them," Kozlowska continues – a sentiment she shares with every dumpling-loving chef I speak to. A paper-thin dyushbara, with a centre of soft homemade cheese, lathered in butter, sour cream and fresh herbs – it's a thing of beauty, exclaims Hercules. "It makes you salivate just thinking about it. Fuck that clean eating shit," she laughs. "Dumplings are the perfect food to have when there's hard times to come."
No doubt that's part of it. Like milkshakes and mac and cheese, dumplings are the sort of food you crave when the news seems apocalyptic. "It's so comforting to enjoy all the elements of a meal in one single bite. It's like someone mopped the plate and served all the good bits to you," continues Eran Tibi of Israeli restaurant Bala Baya. His dumplings are unique to Syrian Jewish culture in which the dough is thicker than usual and "we cook the semolina before adding eggs, which gives it a meaty texture." It's a mark of the dumpling's universality that Israel, Syria and Palestine – countries not exactly known for their fellowship – can be united by it; and that in every culture a bowl of dumplings, be it Ukrainian varenyky or that inimitable Jewish classic, chicken and matzo ball soup, represents something deeply reassuring.
Dumplings are the perfect food to have when there are hard times to come
"They're the food of your childhood," enthuses Hercules – and it is so calming, making them." One of the reasons she thinks dumpling masterclasses have proved so popular is the pleasure to be had in kneading, filling and lacing these intricate parcels of dough. Where the British dumpling requires minimal effort – "no skill or endeavour there", Clutton laughs – a dim sum masterclass at the London Cookery School lasts for three hours or more, two and a half of which is spent just making the dumplings. Erchen Chang of the critically acclaimed XU describes having dumpling parties in Taiwan when she was growing up: "I'd get together with my friends and chat over making dumplings – then we'd eat them together," she recalls. "They're my favourite thing to teach," Hercules adds. "They're not easy, but once you get a hang of it they are so satisfying."
Of course, a great deal hangs on the skill of the maker. Peter of the London Cookery School is an excellent tutor, but his wisdom is wasted on me. "Jellyfish in a car accident" is how one fellow student described my har gow. Mercifully, once steamed and served with a dipping sauce, they taste delicious: a blend of pickled mooli, mushroom and shrimp providing a soft, tangy counterpoint to the sticky casing – but that has more to do with the quality of Peter's pre-prepared ingredients.
Meanwhile, Tongtong Ren of Islington restaurant Chinese Laundry describes disliking dumplings as a child because her grandmother's filling was so bland. "You often struggle to get good ingredients in the home in China, because it's so big," Ren explains, highlighting that anything of decent quality goes to the restaurants. Indeed, the paucity of good produce, particularly meat, in large parts of the country is one of the main reasons dumplings have become such a large part of Chinese cuisine.
"A lot of labour has to go into making the food tasty," Ren says – and you don't get much more labour-intensive than Chinese dumplings. "A good steak you can pan fry, but poor-quality meat requires more. That's why you get complicated dishes and special ingredients in Chinese food."
Introducing them to Chinese Laundry has been a bit of a gamble – but with quality British ingredients and Ren's skills it's one that has paid off. Ren, like Vedet, has been pleasantly surprised by her dumplings' popularity. Growing up in inland China, dumplings were for her a tiresome necessity; yet for Bala Baya's Tibi, growing up in a culture where dumplings are synonymous with celebration and religious festivals, they represent not just a pleasure, but a brilliant opportunity. "It allows the chef to engineer each part of it – from the pastry to the filling and garnish, which means it's a consistent way of serving that same fantastic flavour. There are endless fun combinations," he enthuses. "I think it's the mystery of the filling that is so enticing."
It's so comforting to enjoy all the elements of a meal in one single bite
Clutton, in her bold new vision for dumplings in this country, agrees with Tibi. Dumplings – even suet dumplings – have far greater potential than we give them credit for. "Elizabeth Luard, in her book European Peasant Cooking, has loads of dumpling recipes from Britain and Europe," she continues. "I think there's a Cotswolds one with grated cheese, which is rolled in breadcrumbs and fried rather than stewed." It's basically a croquette – which, let's face it, is up there with burrata as one of the most fetishized foods of the last year or so.
Then there's Jane Grigson's dumplings in her book on English cooking. Examples include sweet dumplings, with a plum or cherry inside – "a doughnut, really, and that's very modern" – or one, as an accompaniment for roast beef, concealing a small piece of horseradish. "Of course a starchy, fatty ball isn't going to get anyone excited," Clutton exclaims. "But the shock of some horseradish, or the juice of a cherry bursting as you bite? That's why dumplings have survived so long," she concludes.
Before she goes, Clutton leaves me with one final suggestion: nettle dumplings, as created by Gill Meller in his new book Gather. "They are beautiful," she enthuses. "They are what I imagine the new age of dumplings to look like." Later that evening, I find myself at the new, zeitgeisty Linden Stores in Islington, ordering thyme dumplings with smoked beef stew. They are deeply aromatic; soft, but with bite to them. They aren't heavy or dense, but they know what they are and what their role is. They're dumplings; and they're there to mop up the sauce, add a subtle, buttery burst of flavour, and leave the eater warm and contentedly full.