Cooks, food judges pursue the essence of dumplings

October 06, 1991|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The term multicultural has been deployed with such abandon lately that Joseph Ben-Moha, the owner of the Roxy Deli, began to take a more philosophical view of dumplings.

"I look at my kreplach and I say, 'What makes you different from my pirogi?' " he said. "And then I must think, 'What makes a won ton not a kreplach, a kreplach not a pirogi, a pirogi not a won ton?' "

He decided to pursue these questions by sponsoring a dumpling derby in his deli on Broadway at 47th Street. Last Thursday, nine cooks and four judges met to cook and compete and appraise. They also debated whether a dumpling is a dumpling is a dumpling.

"They're all dough," Mr. Ben-Moha reasoned. "The only difference is the insides."

Greeting the won ton contingent, he said, "If people ask me what is a kreplach I tell them it's like a won ton," he said.

Janny Leung, a pharmacist who lives in Flushing, N.Y., smiled politely. She didn't recall ever having used the term kreplach.

Tony Yip, a dim sum chef at Shun Lee West in Manhattan, crinkled his brow until it resembled the top of a steamed dumpling. "Won ton are spicy," he said. "Sichuan won ton are very spicy."

"Small, wrapped food is a universal concept," said Dan Lenchner, who owns Manna, a kosher catering company in Manhattan's TriBeCa section. His won ton stuffed with Mexican fried beef and chili was a beacon of pluralism. "I tend to stay away from traditional kosher forms," he said.

His decision resonated with one judge, Michael Klenfner, a record industry executive. "I grew up in Brighton Beach, Little Odessa on the Atlantic, where every restaurant had pirogi, which they called vareniki, and they all had kreplach," he said. "But everybody went to the New Deal Chinese restaurant to eat dumplings."

The won ton contingent quietly chalked this preference up to the paper-thin dough that is sold in packages of 100 and used to wrap won tons.

In China, won tons are considered noodles, not dumplings. Stuffed with pork, chicken or shrimp, the triangular packets can be fried, steamed or boiled and are generally served with noodles in broth.

In New York, however, the line between won tons (of which there are Peking, Cantonese, Shanghai and Sichuan versions) and Cantonese dumplings has been blurred. Dumplings are shaped like fat Hershey's Kisses, stuffed in a manner similar to won tons, steamed or fried, and served as dim sum.

There is some speculation that in New York won tons slipped into the dumpling category before won ton skins were available here, when local Chinese cooks used the heavier egg roll skins to wrap their dumplings.

Both Ms. Leung and Mr. Yip waved aside the semantics. They consider themselves dumpling makers.

Kreplach competitors, on the other hand, are shy of the dumpling nomenclature. To most, kreplach is kreplach: heavy dumplings shaped like lumpy round pillows, stuffed with meat and onions, boiled and usually served in cuicken soup.

"Kreplach is religious, symbolic," said Olga Gurwitz, a 70-year-old retired businesswoman who lives on the East Side. "It is handmade," she said.

"The dough symbolizes the protection we have from a harsh world. We eat it on religious holidays."

Considering the paucity of cross-cultural influence in kreplach as compared to the abundant variations on wontons, she said, "It's easier to improvise when you don't feel you are meddling with something sacred."

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