DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week, we have traveled the world discovering dumplings of all shapes and sizes, from tortellini in Italy to kubay in Israel to entire dumpling banquets in China. It seems like every culture embraces some version of these tasty morsels. And today, NPR's Allison Aubrey explores how this global food has made its mark here in America.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you ask Americans what comes to mind when you think of a dumpling, lots of folks, especially in the South and the Midwest, immediately think of chicken and dumplings, those doughy clumps you dump into chicken stew. But that's not what Marta Mirecki thinks of. She's a first-generation Polish-American and the dumplings of her childhood are pierogi.
MARTA MIRECKI: This recipe that we're using for the dough is my grandmother's recipe.
AUBREY: Even though her grandma passed away years ago, Marta still has some of her old kitchen gadgets here in her kitchen.
MIRECKI: In fact, the rolling pin on the counter here before me is my grandmother's rolling pin.
AUBREY: Do you feel like having that rolling pin here brings your grandmother into the picture?
MIRECKI: It does, it does. I remember watching her make pierogi as a kid.
AUBREY: There were the smells of steaming dough and pork and cabbage filling sizzling as they were fried. And sometimes, Marta joined a whole brigade of other Polish women making pierogies in the basement of their church.
MIRECKI: We had this assembly line going and I just remember laughing.
AUBREY: Pierogi were a big part of Marta's childhood, along with lots of other activities, like Polish camp and folk dancing. She even spoke Polish at home. But now that she has children of her own, Poland seems a lot more distant.
MIRECKI: But now my kids, they're not going to be raised in that same ultra-Polish environment and it bums me out.
AUBREY: But it's also her motivation to keep making these pierogi, the same way her grandmas did. Marta says her kids will likely never speak Polish the way she does, but they will know the tastes of Poland.
MIRECKI: Yeah. The first thing to go is language; the last thing to go is food when it comes to immigrant communities. So, I'm glad that I can at least share something with them.
AUBREY: As a nation of immigrants, it's a connection lots of those have.
TODD WHIFF: Absolutely. I mean, food is a gateway to many societies. So, I think that's a great thing that we're able to hold onto the past and bring it into the future.
AUBREY: That's Todd Whiff(ph). He's a chef at a D.C. restaurant called Firefly. And he thinks a lot about the emotional power of certain foods. I met up with him at a Chinese-owned noodle shop in D.C.'s Chinatown neighborhood. And we ordered some pork dumplings.
WHIFF: Can we do four steamed and four pan-fried, please.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Four pan-fried, right?
WHIFF: Yes, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
AUBREY: Whiff says cultures the world over all make some kind of dumpling. And when immigrants come to the U.S., they always bring their dumplings with them.
WHIFF: Right here, we're sitting here having Asian dumplings. But down the street, we're going to have tamales, we have shumai, we have goya, we have matzo balls. So, it's amazing.
AUBREY: The traditional flour dumplings that you drop into soup almost certainly arrived here with the earliest European settlers. And why are dumplings so ubiquitous? Well, Whiff says one reason is that they're the ultimate comfort food. They're warm, tasty with stick-to-the-ribs filling. And he says this fall, he's putting a traditional chicken and dumpling dish on his menu.
WHIFF: I love them. I mean, it's delicious. Dropped in a nice, rich stock with flour, herbs; it brings back many memories being a kid.
AUBREY: And here's another reason that dumplings are such a staple: Marta Mirecki tells me that her Polish grandmothers would be tickled to hear that dumplings are now a hip restaurant food.
MIRECKI: Pierogi are all about economy. Pierogi were an everyday dish back when time was more abundant than ingredients.
AUBREY: Dumplings are a way to fill bellies using very little meat or other expensive ingredients, even if it takes all day to make them. Now, Marta says, it's the time we don't have, so we make dumplings for special occasions, or increasingly eat as many times as possible in restaurants. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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