|Soup dumplings, Russian-style -- meet khinkali - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
I had intended this post to come out the week of Chinese New Year, but I was still on the tail-end of Maui-wowie vacation posts and the most recent Belgianfest beer festival. There was definitely no shortage of celebration, to be sure. Now that we've fully entered the Year of the Snake, I can say, the hell with tradition -- Dumplings for EVERYONE! I could blame that new FX series The Americans, about sleeper KGB agents playing spygames in the totally rad 80s, or that whenever the movie Eastern Promises is on, I have to stop the world and admire Viggo Mortensen as he does some seriously scary and somewhat pendulous hand-to-hand combat in a Russian steam room. Maybe I just dig Russia and its surrounding republics, conquered states, etc., and think that whole region's cuisine has some curious cultural intersections that go beyond the typical bowl of borscht.
It's a knee-jerk reaction to associate dumplings with Chinese cuisine, but of course many other cultures embrace tiny dough-wrapped parcels of meat and/or vegetables that are steamed, boiled or fried. I had to throw down a Liz Lemon What-the-WHAT when I first heard about khinkali, often quickly described as Georgian or Russian juicy dumplings. I was researching dumplings for an article I was writing, and wanted to explore other cultural takes on this dish, so of course I thought of Eastern European pelmeni and pierogi, which are like extra-doughy ravioli topped with sour cream, and absolutely marvelous. I saw khinkali listed among Russian dumpling menus, but wasn't familiar, so I went to the Batcave and called up the Internet to help. There's a whole universe of blog posts and websites devoted to this dumpling that originated from the Republic of Georgia. While not Russian itself, the dumplings, much like the region, was co-opted by Mother Russia, and is often associated with Russian cuisine. The development of this dish could have possibly come by way of Turkey, given its border-neighboring proximity -- Turkey has smaller dumplings called manti, but they don't quite have the unique liquid filling that khinkali has, and they kind of remind me of open-topped Chinese shaomai. And that's the thing that struck me, khinkali's similarity to the Chinese xiao long bao, where you have a bit of meat, but also a distinctive juicy broth filling, trapped within the dough. Dumplings are a very old dish, and I wouldn't be surprised if back in the wild days of Genghis Khan, some of the food prep methods spread as far and wide as his DNA.
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