For a long time, when I would talk to people about Ukrainian cuisine, I would hurry to note, apologetically, that “it’s not all about dumplings and potatoes, you know.” It has been drummed into Eastern Europeans, mostly by misguided Westerners, that our food is monotonously heavy, featuring little besides overcooked cabbage and potato-filled pasta. I was eager to prove that the cuisine of Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries was as seasonal and regional as it was in places with more reputable cooking, like Italy and France. Our outdoor markets in spring and summer are full of bright soft herbs and sorrel, massive pink tomatoes and enormous watermelons, sour cherries and fragrant peaches, and our food during the warm part of the year is accordingly light and vibrant.
These days, though, I no longer try to hide the fact that my death-row meal would, without question, consist of varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what in Poland are called pierogi. Even though the name comes from varyty, meaning “to boil,” these half-moon-shaped dumplings are sometimes steamed or boiled and then refried. My favorite filling is one of the simplest: homemade cheese curd, called syr, mixed with egg yolks and heavily seasoned with salt. The filling is gently wrapped in the thinnest of pasta doughs and boiled briskly. To serve, varenyky are dropped into a large bowl with about half a stick of melted butter and served with thick, full-fat crème fraîche called smetana. I can only eat about ten ravioli at a time, but I can easily pack away about forty varenykyin a single sitting. When I eat them, I feel like a euphoric child.
There are other dumplings in my life. One of my grandmothers, Vera, is originally from Siberia, so I also grew up with pelmeni—meat-filled dumplings served with plenty of black pepper and dipped in vinegar. They are the perfect food for colder climates. Vera remembers her mother storing a massive sack of them right outside the house during the freezing Siberian winters. They would be immediately frozen, the perfect convenience food; a few handfuls, dropped straight into boiling water, could make a lunch in just minutes for the family of six. As a young woman, Vera had an adventurous spirit. In the early nineteen-fifties, eager for a respite from the harshness of life up north, she took a train to Uzbekistan, and on the way she met my Ukrainian grandfather. They lived in Samarkand and Tashkent, where my father was born, for the next ten years. There, she learned to prepare many Central Asian dishes, and brought them with her when she and my grandfather later relocated to southern Ukraine.
That’s how I have developed a very personal relationship with a dumpling called manti, which is famous all over Central Asia. Traditional manti, which likely originated in China, were made with hand-minced lamb and cooked in large bamboo steamers, their wood fibres fortifying the flavor of the dough. I instead grew up with a mantishnitsa, a large, three-tier metal steamer designed especially for manti. We would cook at least sixty dumplings at a time; if we didn’t eat them all on the first go we could refry them in butter the next day, letting them develop a sumptuous, crispy bottom. The fillings, too, were adapted according to what was available regionally.
Unconventionally, for a dish from a Muslim part of the world, my grandmother used pork. She hand-chopped the meat with an equal volume of diced onions and chunks of homemade butter in lieu of the traditional lamb rump fat called kurdyuk. The juices from the onion would combine with the fat from the butter and the meat to form a tasty broth within the pockets of sturdy dough.
Manti are intricately folded, some reminiscent of sailor’s hats, some of rose buds. In Central Asia, they are often served with yogurt and a spicy chili paste. We, however, always ate them doused in butter and with plenty of black pepper on top, following my grandmother’s way with her native pelmeni. In the past few years, I’ve gained a preference for serving them with beurre noisette and crispy shallots. Whatever the accompaniments, they should be eaten with your hands, and there is skill involved in doing so correctly. As with any other good soup dumpling, you must bite a tiny bit of the dough off, wrap your lips around the incision and suck the liquid out, then shove the rest of it in your mouth without sacrificing any juices to your chin or to your clothes.
There are other first cousins of these meat-filled dumplings all over the ex-Soviet Union. Georgian khinkali, large and shaped like a money bag, feature chili, blue fenugreek, and sometimes (divisively) fresh coriander in a pork and beef or lamb filling. There is a vegetarian version, too, from the Georgian highlands of Kazbegi. They are filled with leftover mashed potatoes mixed with cheese and look exactly like Sardinian culurgiones and many Chinese dumpling varieties. Once you get hold of the plait-like folding method, they are most satisfying to spend your time preparing.
Which brings us to another point: making dumplings takes time. Consider the tiny ones called dyushbara, from Azerbaijan, for instance, which are served in a saffron lamb broth and sprinkled with sumac, mint, and purple basil. The tinier the better, they say. I have been known to make fifteen hundred in a day, ending up with a bad case of “dumpling neck” from having my head bowed in the kitchen for hours. A cook who decides to make these has to really want to please whomever they’re feeding. But that is one of the reasons why dumplings are so enjoyable to eat.
Makes 20 dumplings
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 150 ml. water
- 300–350 grams plain flour (plus extra for dusting)
- 250 grams (8 ounces) boneless pork belly or shoulder
- 150 grams (5 ounces) onion, peeled and finely diced
- 50 grams (2 ounces) butter
- a good pinch of fine sea salt
- 150 grams butter
- 3 shallots, peeled
- a handful of plain flour salt
- 200 ml. vegetable oil (for shallow frying)
- Make the dough. Mix the egg and water together in a bowl, then gradually add the flour and mix it well; if the dough is too soft, add slightly more flour as you knead it. Knead the dough on a well-floured work surface until the dough stops sticking to your hands. You are looking for a firm, elastic pasta dough. Wrap it in cling wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for thirty minutes to help the gluten relax.
- For the filling, slice the pork into thin strips and then hand-chop it as finely as possible. Combine the meat with the diced onions. Season well with salt, and mix thoroughly with your hands.
- Divide the dough into two pieces, and roll each one into a sausage shape. Then cut each sausage into ten 25-gram pieces.
- Roll each piece into a rough 12 cm. circle. Place 1 tablespoon of meat in the center of each circle and a tiny piece of butter on top of the filling. Pull up two opposite edges of the circle, and stick them firmly together above the meat. Do the same with the two other edges, creating an X shape with the edges. Now join the “ears” by pressing together the corners, turning the X shape into an infinity symbol.
- Lightly grease your steamer with vegetable oil and pop the manti in. Steam them vigorously for twenty minutes or until the filling is cooked inside.
- Serve with some melted butter and plenty of pepper or, if you have time to be fancy, make a beurre noisette and fried shallots as follows.
- Add 150 grams of butter into a light-colored pan and cook over low-medium heat, until it starts sizzling and foaming. When it turns deep golden and smells nutty, take it off the heat and pour into a bowl to cool down a touch. Slice the shallots into thin rings, and cover a large plate with paper towels. Now heat the oil in a deep, large frying pan. Toss your sliced shallots into the flour, and drop them into the hot oil. Fry until they’re golden but not brown (they taste acrid if they go too dark). Drain on the paper towel, and season to taste with salt. Serve the manti with brown butter drizzled on top and the crispy shallots as garnish.
This article first appeared in The New Yorker.