13 Eastern European Dumplings You Need in Your Life
The Eastern European dumpling is having a bit of a moment. In Chicago, an old-school Polish restaurant called Staropolska just scored itself a spot in the stodgy French Michelin guide. In Portland, Oregon, the heavenly pelmeni and vareniki dumplings at Russian restaurant Kachka can’t go more than a year without an article in Bon Appetit, while the Georgian wares made the city's Kargi Gogo among Thrillist's best new restaurants of 2018. And in London, they’re standing in line for pierogi from a truck.
The limelight is new. The history of the Eastern European dumpling has for the most part been the history of poverty. The dumpling represents comfort wrung from scarcity, more made from less -- a way to stretch small quantities of meat into a meal.
Though meat-stuffed dumplings were likely learned from Asia, Polish mythology says that pierogi were invented at home during a 13th century famine: They represent the ingenuity of a starved people trying to survive. It took generations for the humble pierog to rise from peasant food to beloved Polish staple.
The same way French fries fill out a hamburger, the dumpling has become the delicious baseline filler food of Eastern and Central Europe. There are dumplings for Christmas Eve and dumplings for Passover, appetizer dumplings and dessert dumplings, dumplings both potato and egg, cheese-filled dumplings and dumplings made from cheese.
The near-hilarious variety can be hard to keep straight. So here’s a roadmap to the Eastern European dumpling, from the borders of Germany to the edge of the Ural Mountains, starting with the holy trinity of Polish pierogi, Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki.
PierogiWhere they're from: Poland
In Poland the pierog is so fundamental that the word stems from the Proto-Slavic word for “feast.” It is food itself, comfort itself. Even its origin is the stuff of mythology. Some believe they were brought by Marco Polo from China, some say they came from roving Tatars, while still others say they were conceived by St. Jacek Odrowąż in Poland during a 13th-century famine. This last legend is so ingrained that when exasperated or surprised, the Poles still swear by “St. Jacek and his pierogi!”
The version of pierog most familiar to Americans is the “Ruskie” style, invented in a formerly Polish region that is now Ukraine. These are boiled and fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and fried onions and sweet farmer’s cheese, with a dusting of pork-skin cracklin on top. Subbing cracklins for bacon, these unleavened flour-and-water dumplings are the bread-and-potato meal of the Great American Pierogi Pocket, which expands like a Polish waistline from Eastern Pennsylvania to encompass Chicago and Cleveland and downstate New York.
But in the old country, anything goes. Pierogi often arrive filled with forcemeat and onions, topped with sour-cream-like smetana. Poland's East may pack their pierogi with lentils, Baltic Gdynia stuffs salmon, Northeastern Kashubia uses goose, and the city of Lublin makes their dumplings with buckwheat dough and flavors them with mint. On Christmas Eve, when meat is forbidden, pierogi often come filled with mushrooms and kraut. And in the summer -- ah! wonderful Polish summer! -- sweet pierogi come boiled and stuffed with sugared whole blueberries or strawberry mousse.
PelmeniWhere they're from: Ural and Siberian Russia
Pelmeni are the Russian stuffed-dumpling cousin of pierogi, and come most likely from Siberia and the Ural Mountains. Though modern versions consent to ground beef and pork, the dumplings were once filled with raw elk or badger or the occasional bear. In the permafrosts of old Siberia, hunters used to cart around their sacks of frozen elk dumplings as an early take on instant dinner.
Often formed using a specialized many-mold pan called a pelmenitsa, the doughy shells of pelmeni tend to be thinner and more delicate than the heartier dough used to form pierogi, and the flour is often salted. What they lose in toothsome and chewy comfort, they gain in a chance at ethereal transcendence.
Pelmeni are always savory, never sweet, and are served doused in butter or smetana or even mustard. Sometimes they arrive in soup, as in Portland, Oregon restaurant Kachka’s deliciously decadent Siberian dumplings in fancy broth. But word to anyone traveling to the tundra: Serving pelmeni in broth is apparently reviled by traditional-minded Siberians, the same way Chicago hates ketchup on a hot dog.
VarenikiWhere they're from: Ukraine
Some sources insist that Ukrainian-born vareniki dumplings are the same thing as pierogi, in part because both make use of potato and fruit fillings. Do not listen to such people; they are insensitive louts. Vareniki and pierogi are like fraternal twins, different in ways their mother countries recognize better than anyone. The national dumpling of Ukraine is thinner-skinned and nearly literary in its subtlety, with flour ground as finely as the much-vaunted doppio flour of Italy.
The two share fillings in the manner of Venn diagrams. Like Ukrainian-born Ruskie pierogi, vareniki are often stuffed with potatoes and fried onions. Other vareniki fillings are prone to unbearable richness: straight-up pork fat, potatoes with farmer’s cheese and egg and milk, and pears that have been dried and mashed. Maslyana -- Ukrainian Mardi Gras -- calls for sweet and farmy cheese vareniki on every table. Meanwhile, summertime sour-cherry vareniki may come topped with both smetana and sugar. They are the essence of an old Ukrainian love story, all sweetness and fat.
UszkaWhere they're from: Poland
The Mini-Me of Polish stuffed dumplings, uszka are like pierogi except tiny and a little goofy. The name literally means “little ears,” and in appearance they’re just as tortuous. Usually, the rumpled ears are served in soup or broth, as in the Christmas Eve tradition of mushroom-filled uszka ladled over with a Polish take on beet-soup borscht. But just as likely, the little ears are filled with beef and served in stock. Either way, they are tiny and delicious. In Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, they find their cousin in the kreplach.
KhinkaliWhere they're from: Georgia
The soup dumpling is a marvel of the modern universe, a plump kiss of dough filled with hot broth that magically spills out when punctured with a fork or a tooth. Shanghai-style soup dumplings, invented only a century ago, are currently getting all the press. But in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, khinkali are a much older soup dumpling. Likely derived from the momo dumplings of conquering Mongols, khinkali are bigger, thicker, and raw-meat brutal. They are also wonderful.
To make khinkali, thick dough is folded around minced, spiced raw beef, pork, or lamb. Broth or water is often sealed into the dumpling along with the raw meat juices, which cook inside the boiled dumpling like sous-vide hamburger. To keep the juices safe inside, the top seam of the dumpling is twisted into a thick, tough knob called a kudi, or “hat.”
It is rude to use a fork or spoon to eat khinkali. Instead, grab your dumpling by its top hat with your forefinger and thumb. Puncture it with your front teeth, then suck its juices dry. After, rip and chew into the meat and noodle itself. Finally, discard the little dough-knob on your plate as a trophy of your kill.
KlepeWhere they're from: Bosnia
Bosnian Klepe look like ravioli, sure. But their intense flavors come from parts farther east: Klepe are a descendant of the Central Asian manti. So the onion and mincemeat filling of the dumplings are liberally salted and peppered. And the dumplings often come doused in not one but two sauces: a sour cream or yogurt sauce, and a garlic-paprika sauce that will turn your breath to glorious sulfur.
CepelinaiWhere they're from: Lithuania
The national dumpling of Lithuania is the food version of a recliner with an afterburner: a shepherd’s pie shaped like a Zeppelin airship. The wrist-thick footballs of potato-starch dumplings are filled with meat or cheese or mushrooms, and often topped with sour cream sauce and pork cracklins. And if it all sounds like something the Polish would eat, you’re absolutely right: Their version is called pyzy, and comes in an unholy wealth of varieties.
KnedlickyWhere they're from: The Czech Republic
In olden Czech times, the legend goes, a girl wasn’t considered ready to marry until she could make a knedlicky dumpling with pork and sauerkraut. This, as it turns out, is a horrifyingly low bar to set. Knedlicky (or Knödel if you’re German), are the most primitive dumpling there is. They’re pretty much just big hunks of boiled dough, often made by mixing wheat flour with potatoes or eggs. The Germans tend to make theirs into tennis-ball-sized choking hazards, while Czechs make thick rolls of the stuff, then slice it onto your plate like a Pillsbury loaf. The texture is usually soft and a little gluey, primed for gravy or broth.
MatzahWhere they're from: Central Europe
Matzah is a Passover and New York deli staple. The boiled balls of matzah flour are hallmark of American comfort food. The dumpling likely shares European ancestors with Knödel, and the Yiddish word for matzah (kneydl) bears out this shared history. Unlike Knödel, matzah balls are schmaltzed up with chicken or other fats, and are usually served in hearty chicken soup. Depending on their density, matzah balls are classed as either “sinkers” or “floaters.” Want your balls to be floaters? Use baking soda or seltzer water, and maybe fold in a bit of fluffed egg white.
Carlsbad dumplingsWhere they're from: The Czech Republic
The Carlsbad dumpling is a very Czech solution to stale baguette. Instead of just battering and frying slices of day-old bread the way the French do, Czechs cube it up and soak it in eggy batter with parsley and other herbs. When the bread bits are all saturated and stuck together, they’re then smooshed into a cylindrical dumpling loaf and boiled in a dishcloth. The resulting Frankenstein loaf is sliced and served the same way as any other bread. Consider it a collage made of French toast.
HaluskyWhere they're from: Slovakia, Hungary, Romania
Halusky are the Eastern European take on German-style Spätzle, little noodle-like curls of dumpling dough often stewed up with cabbage or kraut. In Hungary, eggy haluski dumplings are dropped into goulash or other savory stews. Slovaks top theirs with farmer’s cheese and bacon to make a national dish called bryndzové halušky. It’s like the world’s most chewy take on mac and cheese.
KluskiWhere they're from: Poland, Belarus, Ukraine
“Kluski” is the all-purpose Polish term for all manner of soft, gnocchi-like dumpling that run smaller than Knödel, bigger than haluski. Kopytka, or “little hooves,” are potato gnocchi shaped just as the name describes. Kluski slaskie are flat and round potato dumplings with a dimple in the middle meant to pool up gravy, just like a mashed-potato boat at Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, multiple versions of kluski involve pouring dough straight into soup, kind of like a dumpling’s answer to an egg drop. And because every Polish feeling has a dumpling to match, there is also a cheese-dumpling dessert called kluski liniwe, topped with sugar and cinnamon and whipped cream.
Plum DumplingsWhere they're from: The former Austro-Hungarian Empire
Among all the dessert dumplings of Eastern Europe, perhaps the most beautiful is the summertime plum-stuffed Knödel dumpling that’s like the last sweet gasp of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Wherever the Habsburgs once had their say, from Austria (Zwetschkenknödel) to the Czech Republic (svestkove knedliky) to Romania (galuste cu prune), there are these beautiful whole plums stuffed into spheres of potato batter, then simmered in hot water to perfection. Perhaps you like your plum dumplings browned to crispness in the pan, or covered in butter or sugar or cinnamon? No matter. We are all Habsburgs here!