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In the light of the dumpling moon

11/1/2023

Traditional (left and center) and nontraditional spring rolls at Egg Roll Ladies.

Early last month, NASA released the first-ever photos of Pan, the innermost moon of Saturn. To great surprise, the moon looks like a potsticker (gyoza in Japan). Asian media have dubbed it “the dumpling moon.” 

Dumplings are a lifelong food. People learn to love them before they have teeth and still love them after they start to lose their teeth. In lore, they were invented more than 2,000 years ago by a physician, Zhang Zhongjian, trying to treat an epidemic. They came from north China to Cantonese south China and from there to California. The Mongols took them to Poland where they became pierogis. By 1900, dumplings were loved worldwide. 

In Appalachia, dumplings were flour, egg and water mixtures left over from pie crusts and bread mixes. They were just dumped into pots of stock, usually chicken, without being shaped. Those dumplings don’t look like Pan.

Pan appears to have a ridge on three sides and is not perfectly round like most celestial bodies. Saturn’s deep shadows have many wondering if the photos are fooled by them. 

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The dumpling moon has inspired a renaissance of dumpling love. In Des Moines’ metro, Wong’s Chopsticks (5500 Merle Hay Road) and Pho 515 (801 University Ave.) have been dumpling darlings for years. They have some new competition now from two new places that specialize in dumplings. 

The Egg Roll Ladies (ERL) is a treasure on the outskirts of north Des Moines. Like its treats, it is stuffed full of big personality. Owner Trang Pham came to America at age 6, grew up “down by Mainstream Studios,” and graduated from Valley High School and Upper Iowa University. 

ERL proudly advertises that it is “veteran-owned,” and Trang again works for the military after a long stint as Des Moines’ first Asian female firefighter. Fried egg rolls and crab Rangoon, steamed and pan seared potstickers, cold spring rolls, bowls of rice, rice noodles or glass (mung bean flour) noodles with choices of Asian vegetables and proteins, plus drinks make up the menu. The latter are mostly sweet things like bubble teas, but the plain iced Vietnamese coffee packed a caffeine wallop to remember. 

Trang also advertises “Legit Asian food.” She told us she wants to use food as cultural assimilation and, uniquely in Des Moines, distinguishes between “traditional and nontraditional” spring rolls. “Nontraditional is something created in America. The meat is marinated and does not need all the toppings, sauces and extras that traditional uses.”  

We particularly liked the marinated versions of pork and lemongrass chicken, though we still used lots of sauce and extras. Our visit was a delight. A very good vibe exists, and service has military precision. 

Dumpling House (DH) has a very different vibe and service instinct. It’s only open Sundays from 5:30-9 p.m. I have not had good luck walking in and ordering, with a wait time of “over 30 minutes” predicted. When I preordered for a specific pickup time, I still waited for 20 minutes.  

It’s totally worth it. Dumplings come in four types of protein — pork, chicken, beef and vegetarian — and two styles, potsticker or steamed. Dumplings taste freshly made, not with wrappers but from scratch. The menu also includes won ton soups and good cucumber and potato salads. Lots of chili oil and ponzu were included in orders, which are for carryout only. 

DH’s website stresses that dumplings are meant for special occasions, particularly New Year’s when they can become auspices of good fortune. So, Sunday-only service is justified, but I could easily eat dumplings this good every day. ♦

Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.

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