NPR has wrapped up its dumpling week, where they looked at dumpling traditions from around the world. Dumplings are part of the food culture of most of the northern hemisphere, and My Little Dumpling on Talkeetna’s Main Street has brought part of that tradition to rural Alaska. KTNA’s Phillip Manning paid the kwansit hut that houses the dumpling stand a visit.
Around thirty chicken pesto dumplings sizzle as they go from the pot to the sauté pan and being showered with cinnamon curry and ground chipotle pepper.
Loudon Wilson, owner of My Little Dumpling in Talkeetna, carefully shakes out the spices and stirs the dumplings in clarified garlic butter.
He’s been running his dumpling shop in Talkeetna for three summers. Many people walk right by without realizing he’s there, however. There’s no sign advertising another eatery on the bustling street, just the smell of a score of spices and a neon “OPEN” sign. Still, through word of mouth, and by virtue that his is the only sign lit up during late night hours on this end of the street, he does a steady trade in bite-sized Russian dumplings. While I’m there, a dumpling veteran brings a group of first-timers to the stand.
“So, I’m hearing chicken pesto.”
“Yes. Large order.”
“Large…spicy, medium, or mild?”
That’s Loudon taking an order from Jeff from Chicago. Jeff is in Talkeetna for the summer and is branching out to try the chicken pesto dumplings that you heard sizzling away at the top of the piece. So what makes the sauteed treats such a hit? Loudon says a lot of it comes down to fusion.
“Our joke phrase is ‘geographical promiscuity’….More or less, if you look at what we’re doing, the curries would be typically considered Indian. The paprika is more South and Central America. Then you look at all these spices, using a Chinese hot mustard, a New Mexican red chili, a New Mexican green chili. We’ve got habanero, ghost chili, pasilla negro, which which is an awesome spice–totally underrated–chipotle. It’s a Russian dumpling, and then we’re going to put sour cream on it–and sriracha sauce, which I think is Vietnamese.”
With such a diverse spice rack, Loudon says that the flavor can vary week to week depending on what he wants to try out, but that he has developed an idea of what spice blend generally suits a given dumpling.
“You know, I do make some logical choices, I think. The hot mustard, being Chinese hot mustard, goes particularly well with the peel men, because we don’t have a mustard spice in our recipe. When I do the chicken pesto, I think the cinnamon and the chipotle are really nice to bring to that, but I really can’t do that if you ask for mild.”
With obvious skill for spice mixing and a passion for making food that people enjoy, I asked Loudon how his love affair with the dumpling began.
“I grew up in New York City. I grew up in the tenth floor of a building, and right downstairs, across the street. was a Chinese restaurant. I, from a very young age–whenever my parents would ask, that’s where I wanted to go. And every time we’d go, I’d get dumpling….My dad was always trying to teach me how to cook, and I wasn’t very receptive. He tried dumplings, like, “Well you like dumplings, let’s make dumplings.” At least in the back of the mind, it put the idea that you shouldn’t be intimidate by–there’s no magic to making a dumpling.”
While there may not be any magic, there is definitely a lot of labor. Loudon and his very small staff, currently consisting of only one other person, make the dumplings by hand using a Russian dumpling press that he describes as being technology from “about halfway through the industrial revolution.”
Loudon likes to describe dumplings as a “delivery system” for whatever type of filling the cook wants to try. He says he’s probably actually produced about twenty varieties that he’s served, with dozens of “dud” dumplings that never even made it that far, including a variety of fruit mixes. This prompted me to ask:
“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever experimented with putting in a dumpling?”
“I’m trying to think what stupid stuff…oh yeah, I hated this…Nutella and banana.”
For the most part, Loudon sticks to a pork and beef blend, potato, and various specials, including chicken pesto, salmon, and polish sausage. Building his recipes and business has obviously a time-consuming labor of love, so how are the results?
Dumpling veteran Jeff tries the chicken pesto for the first time.
“This is so amazing…just great seasoning on the dumplings…a little bit of sour cream…just that little bit of pesto…it’s amazing.”
Kyle from Detroit, a dumpling first-timer, opted for the somewhat more conventional potato dumplings.
“Ok…alright…this is really good. I’ll be coming back, here.”
The verdict is in, and Loudon Wilson will probably have one more person to spread the word-of-mouth advertising that keeps locals and visitors flocking to My Little Dumpling every night of the summer.