When we wanted to know more about dumplings, our first call was to the Cleaver Quarterly. The Cleaver is a print magazine devoted entirely to Chinese food, produced in Beijing by a trio of super-nerds—Jonathan White, Lilly Chow, and Iain Shaw. We knew that their Chinese-dumpling knowledge would make our stateside reporting look like a sad, slumpy, soup-just-leaked-all-over-the-bamboo-steamer xiao long bao. They started with a dumpling infographic they made for their most recent issue and built it out, giving descriptions for thirty-six (!) steamed, pan-fried, boiled, deep-fried, and sort-of dumplings that can be found in China and beyond.
AI WO WO 艾窝窝
Some say these confections—sticky rice stuffed with a sweet gravel of sesame, melon seeds, walnuts, and hawthorn jelly—were invented for Xiang Fei, a homesick Uighur concubine. But ai wo wo had already been mentioned as a delicacy in the classic one-handed read The Plum in the Golden Vase, which was written during the previous dynasty. In any case, this bite-sized halal dessert is still one of the best-loved old-timey Beijing snacks, instantly recognizable by a coating of powdered sugar and a red dot on top.
CAO ZAI GUO 草仔果
Think of these “grass cakes” as the savory qing tuan of the south. Cao zai guo are found in Fujianese and Hakka cuisine and belong on the savory side of the spectrum of kuih (Hokkien bite-size snacks). In Taiwan, a variety featuring dried shrimp, shiitakes, and deep-fried shallots is common, though most fillings include shredded daikon. The sticky-rice dough is flavored and colored grass-green by a local herb known as shu qu cao. They range in shape from round masses to ridged ovoids to flat patties stamped with a stylized tortoise-shell design.
CHIU CHOW FUN GOR 潮州粉果
Purists can have their har gow; those who get bored easily are more likely to appreciate the kitchen-sink approach of this dumpling from eastern Guangdong. The filling can include dried shrimp, chopped peanuts, dried radish, garlic chives, mushrooms, cilantro, and jicama—bringing together crunchy, tender, and stringy chews in every bite. The variety of mouthfeel extends to the highly elastic skin (made from wheat and tapioca starch) and its rubbery frill.
GOW CHOY GAU 韭菜饺
In this dumpling, diced shrimp play second fiddle to chives, whose green hue peeks through the chewy translucent wrapper. The use of chives in Cantonese dim sum is unusual. Though the herb is an extremely common ingredient for dumpling fillings in northern China, their pungency can be a bit off-putting to southerners (especially as Chinese chives are more garlicky than regular chives). Still, in gow choy gau, that herbal flavor only brings out the natural sweetness of the shrimp.
GUAN TANG BAO 灌汤包
This one’s for the slurpers (and anybody with nostalgia for Capri Sun). Native to Jiangsu Province, these giant versions of xiao long bao each occupy an entire bamboo steamer (about the circumference of a large coffee mug); a straw is poked into the dime-sized “eye” of the knot of dough on top, through which one drinks the hot porky soup within. Given the size of these dumplings, the dough wrapper is far from delicate; in fact, guan tang bao skins tend to be as leathery as a catcher’s mitt.
HAR GOW 虾饺
The deceptive simplicity of har gow (Cantonese for “shrimp dumpling”) makes it the ideal skill test for a dim sum chef. Can he roll out the dough—made with the same tapioca starch that gives boba pearls their tensile strength—thin enough to showcase the fresh pink shrimp inside? Might he keep the shrimp plump with a brief soak in a baking-soda solution? Will he include diced bamboo for textural contrast? How’s his pleating game? These dim sum are so iconic that Puma collaborated with Hypebeast in 2013 on a sneaker that “features a subtle shrimp camo beneath a thin translucent layer, mimicking the wrapper skin of a Har Gow.”
Originally from Tibet and Nepal, these dumplings were traditionally filled with seasoned ground beef or yak meat, but nowadays you can find meat (beef, yak, mutton, pork, chicken), vegetable (cabbage, potato), and cheese (paneer or chhurpi) varieties. Regardless of the filling, momos must be eaten with the fiery red chili-garlic-ginger-cilantro sauce called sepen. Momos are a staple at any festive occasion, but for some Tibetan families, the dumpling’s resemblance to a purse makes them inappropriate for the first day of Losar (New Year); their closed shape is not auspicious at a time when the focus should be on openness and generosity.
NIAN DOU BAO 粘豆包
This sticky steamed bun filled with bean paste—Manchurian in origin—is a favorite in China’s northeastern provinces. As winter sets in, nian dou bao are made in big batches and then stacked in outdoor vessels, where Mother Nature keeps them refrigerated. A sticky yellow millet dough envelops a simple filling of lightly mashed red beans or kidney beans.
In Hawaii, these emboldened versions of fun gor (or har gow) are named after the local word for “ear” (and not to be confused with wood ear mushrooms, which are also called pepeiao). Along with their dim-sum mates manapua (char siu bao) and pork hash (shu mai), these dumplings made the trip from Canton to Hawaii. Over time, they evolved to be bigger and starchier, to fill the bellies of field laborers working on the sugar cane plantations.
QING TUAN 青团
These “verdant lumps” supposedly date back more than 2,000 years to the Zhou Dynasty, when it was decreed that cooking fires be banned during the Qing Ming Festival, a time to honor ancestors and tend to gravesites. Another legend has it that these lustrous jade-colored dumplings—so easy to camouflage in the grass—were invented to smuggle nourishment to a fugitive general during the Taiping Rebellion. The intense hue traditionally comes by mixing the juice of Chinese mugwort (a fragrant medicinal herb) with glutinous rice powder; the stretchy dough is then filled with sweet bean paste. Nowadays, qing tuan are just as likely to be made with any chlorophyll-rich juice.
SIU MAI 烧卖
In the dim sum parlors of southern China, siu mai bear the closest resemblance to what we know in the West: juicy pork-and-shrimp meatballs that wear the thinnest of yellow skins like a shrug, and are crowned with crab roe or a whole prawn. But their Hong Kong street cousins are filled with snowy white fish paste and sold five to a skewer. Up north, dumplings bearing the same name (Mandarin: shaomai), sport a wrapping style best described as “makeshift sack.” Inner Mongolia makes a claim as the homeland of shaomai, with a mutton forcemeat and excess wrapper on top that it is snipped and styled into flower petals. Finally, the siu mai found in and around Shanghai is filled with greased glutinous rice.
XIAO LONG BAO 小笼包
Like many foods that inspire fierce obsession, xiao long bao involve a ritual. Before eating, the terrifying heat stored within their pleated wrappers must be diffused. Some diners advocate biting a hole in the top of each dumpling and performing a preemptive slurping of the soup, while others advise cooling one’s heels until the entire dumpling can be popped into the mouth, soup and all. In Shanghai, the pork is often cut with luxurious crab roe; a few shops even sell 100-percent-crabmeat-and-roe dumplings that have no structural integrity whatsoever.
YE ER BA 叶儿粑
These are Sichuan’s version of the filled mochi chews that appear every Qing Ming Festival; they were tweaked and renamed “leaf rice mounds” in 1940 at the city’s Tianzhai Snack Bar. Ye er ba filling can be either sweet (bean paste) or savory (pork and preserved mustard greens), but the ball of glutinous rice dough is always loosely wrapped in a leaf (tangerine, plantain, bamboo, or lotus) before being steamed. This serves two purposes: to infuse the pounded rice with flavor, and to keep these highly adhesive dumplings from gluing themselves to the steamer (or your fingers).
ZHENG JIAO 蒸饺
The translation of their name may be generic (“steamed dumpling”), but don’t dismiss them as boring. The most elaborately pleated dumplings are always steamed; frying can destroy delicate filigrees, and boiling can lead to sagging and breakage. Zheng jiao’s shape even takes their mode of preparation into account; the crescents fit best in a round steamer. But they do quickly turn rubbery once cooled—all the more reason to eat them as fast as you can.
DA LIAN HUO SHAO 褡裢火烧
The origins of most dumplings are lost to time, but we know the exact circumstances of the birth of da lian huo shao: in 1876, at Beijing’s most bustling bazaar, as an accompaniment for hot-and-sour soup. The bookmark-length dumplings are named after an old-fashioned carry-all known as a da lian. What’s that? Imagine rolling up your valuables in a long bag that lies flat enough to drape over one shoulder. Now imagine that your dearest possession is minced pork (tenderized by freezing both pre-mince and post-marinade), that the bag is made from wheat flour, and that the end flaps are snugly folded up and fried into place.
GUO TIE 锅贴
Northerners say that proper potstickers should always be long, straight, and open on both ends, rather than crimped closed in the crescent shape of most other jian jiao (pan-fried dumplings). They are called guo tie in Mandarin, but many Westerners know the dumplings by their Cantonese transliteration, wor tip. In the Boston area, potstickers are synonymous with “Peking ravioli,” thanks to the decision of chef-restaurateur Joyce Chen in 1958 to rename them on the menu of her restaurant, located in an Italian neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
JIAN JIAO 煎饺
Chinese fried dumplings are traditionally served “bottoms up,” both for easy plating and to show off the properly browned base that comes from the shui jian (“water-frying”) method. After the raw dumplings have been sizzled golden in oil, a bowlful of water is poured into the pan. The hot water cooks the filling inside the dumpling and steams the dough, then boils off to reveal dumplings linked by a fried latticework of oil and residual flour. When done correctly, the dumpling looks like a golden doily.
JIU CAI HE ZI 韭菜盒子
The name of this popular northern snack translates literally as “chive box,” but their shape is more akin to that of a turnover. A wheat dough is made with hot water (to keep the gluten relatively quiescent); chopped chives are quickly stir-fried with scrambled eggs and rice vermicelli; the dough is rolled out, filled, folded over, and rope-edged; and the whole thing is slapped onto a big clamshell griddle to crisp the dough. The size of jiu cai he zi can range from that of an empanada to a calzone.
SHENG JIAN MAN TOU 生煎馒头
In any dumpling tournament, the sheng jian man tou (or sheng jian bao, as they are known outside of Shanghai) should be a finalist. It’s a steamed bun with its bottom crisped to perfection. This popular Shanghainese breakfast is best described as a crunchy xiao long bao; the secret to the pork filling is a liberal application of Shaoxing wine. Rookies often pop the entire dumpling in their mouths or bite it clean in half, resulting in burnt palates, soup scorches, and howls of laughter. Nibble a vent for the steam and slurp the soup first to look like a pro.
CHAO SHOU 抄手
Chao shou (literally, “folded hands”) are essentially Sichuan wonton. The thin-skinned pork dumplings are often served in a tangy, numbing, peppery puddle of hong you (red oil), but there’s no shame in opting to enjoy them in qing tang (clear broth) with a few sprigs of a leafy greens and lots of cilantro.
DAN JIAO 蛋饺
These egg-skin dumplings are made in a metal soup ladle, held directly over a low burner flame. Beat an egg, pour it into the ladle, and let the tiny omelet form; when the edges have set but the center is still moist, place a dab of ground meat inside, then fold the egg crepe over. Extract carefully. Re-oil the ladle and repeat. Finally, the dan jiao are steamed until the meat’s ready. Interestingly, these high-maintenance creations are typically used as a supporting player in festive soups or ensemble claypots.
SHANGHAI WONTON 上海大馅馄饨
True Shanghai wonton look like tortellini but are built like tanks, engineered to contain the maximum volume of filling; a single one will weigh down your spoon. At dedicated wonton shops, the number of fillings can run into the dozens, but the classic Shanghainese filling is minced pork mixed with the delicate wild green known as shepherd’s purse. They’re available for breakfast, but viable for dinner.
SHUI JIAO 水饺
When is a wonton not a wonton at all? When it’s shui jiao. These dumplings are basically beached wontons, served out of soup but still as floppy and flimsy as ever. The fillings are limited only by one’s imagination. At Baoyuan Dumpling House in Beijing, for example, the most popular fillings run the full gamut of textures: shrimp/cucumber, purple cabbage/ground pork/bean sprouts/crisped rice, and eggplant/egg/chili/rice vermicelli.
TANG YUAN 汤圆
Southern-style tang yuan (literally “soup spheres”) start off like most other dumplings—a filling is tucked inside a soft dough and sealed—but in this case, the dumplings are rolled into balls. Black sesame is the most common filling, followed by red bean, jujube, and peanut. But supermarket freezer sections now feature tang yuan filled with chocolate, mango, blueberry, pineapple, and rose. Boiling turns the wrapper into a tender and gluey skin; the slightest tear unleashes a fast-oozing flood of sugary filling. Tang yuan are usually served in water or sweet broth, but in some Guizhou restaurants, it’s become a trend to serve these dessert balls stir-fried with pickled vegetables.
YUAN XIAO 元宵
Yuan xiao are almost identical to tang yuan. The name is just the northern way of referring to sweet soup dumplings, especially those eaten on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year, which marks the official end of the Spring Festival period. Unlike tang yuan, though, yuan xiao snowball into existence. They begin as chunks of filling in big trays full of glutinous rice powder, tumbling about as they accumulate mass. Regular dips into water create an adhesive surface for each new layer of powder. The process works like a 3-D printer, resulting in all manner of elaborate colors, patterns, and even rippling effects.
YUN TUN 云吞
Yun tun are better known by their Cantonese name, wonton. Their name translates to “swallowing clouds,” and they look the part—but it’s just as useful to think of them as comets: small head, long tail. A pinch of meat is cinched shut while leaving ample amounts of wrapper, which billows like nimbus clouds once the dumplings have been boiled in broth.
FRIED WONTON 炸馄饨
In Cantonese cuisine, if a raw wrapped wonton does not end up in a pot of boiling water (i.e. wonton soup), then it’s destined for the deep fryer, after which it gets smothered with sweet-and-sour sauce. In the latter form, wontons became wildly popular as an appetizer in Chinese restaurants abroad. Strangely, “deep-fried wonton” sometimes can refer simply to the crisp wrappers—a chip for dipping rather than a traditional filled dumpling.
HAM SHUI GOK 咸水角
The secret to these chewy pork croquettes—staples of Cantonese dim sum—is in the flour. Some swear by potato starch, but any combination of thicker flours (glutinous rice, for instance) works for perfect deep-frying. These dumplings are often egg-shaped and egg-sized, with a tender-crisp crust giving way to a chewy, porky core.
JIAN DUI 煎堆
These bronzed spheres, half-hollow and crusted with sesame seeds, are a staple on dim sum tables and at Chinese bakeries across the world. The crisp-chewy layer of glutinous rice hides a cavern of sweet sludge (either lotus seed or red bean). This snack can be traced back to Xi’an’s glory days as the capital of the Tang Dynasty. In China’s south, they’re known as jeen doy (“fried pile”), but up north they’re better known as matuan (“sesame mass”) or maqiu (“sesame ball”).
NANGUA BING 南瓜饼
Get your fresh hot beta-carotene here! These pumpkin cakes have a glutinous rice exterior, blistered crispy by a dunk in hot oil; inside, red bean paste awaits. In China, the nangua (“southern gourd”) that’s mashed into the dough is likely a green-skinned kabocha or other orange-fleshed squash.
WU GOK 芋角
Texturally profound, and much in demand at yum cha, wu gok—literally “taro dumpling”—deserve to be better known, if only because they look like Seinfeld’s Kramer in dumpling form. The crazed frizz of the outer layer is what results when the “dough” of mashed taro meets boiling oil. The top layer fries itself silly while the inner layer remains creamy and soft, protecting the pork parcels within. Warning: that taro paste is a powerful insulator, and the core filling can easily reach tongue-scalding temperatures.
YAO GOK 油角
For many Cantonese folks, nothing says Chinese New Year like a platter stacked high with these crunchy little purse-shaped dumplings: a snack to welcome all the family and friends who make their visits in the first few days of the new year. The filling tends to be a sweet mix of peanut, sesame, and coconut.
ZHA JIAO 炸饺
Given their generic name (“fried dumpling”), these would seem to be identical to fried wonton. However, whereas the latter tend to be folded to feature miles of crunchy wrapper, zha jiao have a lone dorsal fin and a meatier filling.
CURRY BEEF TRIANGLE 咖喱酥
Success has many fathers; so does the curry puff. Deliciously greasy and delicately spiced, these flaky hand pies are a fine example of the fusion cooking produced in the hawker stalls of Singapore. But is it a descendant of the Cornish pasty, the Portuguese empanada, or the Indian samosa? Some claim that Chinese cooks were the first to add potato and egg to the beef filling; and there seems to be more evidence that the laminated dough which produces the spiral crust is a Chinese technique. Regardless, it’s standard fare at Hong Kong dim sum houses.
LO MAI GAI 糯米鸡
Lo mai gai translates to “glutinous rice chicken”—and while sticky rice indeed plays a central role as the “wrapper,” the filling is rarely chicken alone. Look out for mushrooms, shrimp, or a golden nugget of salted egg yolk inside. Traditionally, these bundles are wrapped with a single lotus leaf, which imparts the rice with its distinctive fragrance. Though similar to zongzi, lo mai gai are distinguished by their filling (chicken), their shape (rectangular packets) and their availability (all year round).
SAN DA PAO 三大炮
What Fuchsia Dunlop calls “three cannonshots” in Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking is also known as “three big cannons,” “three cannonballs,” and “three artillery.” The various names are drawn from the traditional method of preparation, involving a chef splitting a fistful of steamed glutinous rice into three balls and hurling them at a table outfitted with a set of mini-cymbals. The cymbal jangle when the balls bounce off the table into an angled basket filled with ground sesame and toasted soybean flour. The dumplings then get drenched in a dark syrup before being served.
ZONG ZI 粽子
Zong zi are synonymous with the Dragon Boat Festival, a commemoration of the ancient poet-statesman Qu Yuan, whose suicide by drowning supposedly prompted grieving villagers to toss leaf-wrapped rice clumps into the river. Southerners like their zong zi savory; typical filings include fatty pork, chestnut, dried shrimp, mushrooms, and salted duck egg. Northerners celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival by eating zongzi with sweet fillings such as red bean or jujube paste. In some places, the tradition is to make fillingless sticky rice dumplings and dip them in sugar.