Vitaly Paley remembers his “aha” dumpling moment.

The James Beard Award-winning chef was at his Northwest Portland restaurant, Paley’s Place, in 2012, watching as one of his cooks, Jordan Lee, prepared Shanghai-style soup dumplings. Lee, now the sous chef at D.O.C., folded meat and aspic into circles of pale dough, creating the classic look of xiao long bao. Steamed, the aspic melted, turning each dumpling into a tender pouch of rich broth.

“It was pretty spectacular tasting,” Paley says.

Paley knew he had to incorporate that experience into his cooking. The opportunity arrived last year when he launched DaNet, Paley’s bi-monthly pop-up restaurant devoted to the cuisine of his homeland, Russia, and other former Eastern Bloc states. His entry point? Khinkali, the squat, soupy dumpling popular in the Caucasus that closely resembles xiao long bao.

As local food fans hunt, often fruitlessly, for top-notch xiao long bao and other dumplings in the Chinese tradition, a new crop of Russo-Soviet food carts and restaurants in Portland have snuck in to fill the void. Though they’re not quite the same, these dishes — the khinkali at Da Net and Kargi Gogo, the manti and chuchvara at Restaurant Uzbekistan and, especially, the pelmeni and vareniki at Kachka — have become Portland’s secret dumpling weapon.

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“Pelmeni are like bachelor food,” says Kachka chef Bonnie Morales (nee Frumkin). “If you’re a student, and don’t know how to cook, this is what you eat like five nights a week.”

Kachka’s Siberian pelmeni are of another order entirely. These hexagonal dumplings, stuffed with savory beef, pork, veal and onion, can be ordered fried, though they’re best served boiled and floating in Kachka’s wonderfully pungent “fancy broth.” They’re fantastic, as are the tvorog vareniki, which are filled with farmer’s cheese, and the Ukrainian-style sour cherry vareniki, which can come fried, with a dollop of sour cream and strips of mint, for dessert.

Pelmeni, Morales said, were one of the dishes that inspired her and husband Israel to first start dreaming of Kachka, the “Soviet” spot that has emerged as one of Portland’s best new restaurants.

“Pelmeni, especially the Siberian style, are something I grew up eating,” says Morales. “When Israel and I met and started dating, I would always have some in my freezer. We’d doctor them up with some awesome leftover braising liquid, and Israel and I would talk about how much more delicious they would be if we made them ourselves.”

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For Sean Fredericks and McKinze Cook, serving khinkali was a way to introduce Portlanders to the street food of Georgia — the country, not the state — a cuisine they had fallen in love with while volunteering with the Peace Corps. Around the time Paley was first dreaming of soup dumplings, Fredericks and McKinze were just opening their two-year-old downtown food cart, Kargi Gogo.

Portland’s secret dumpling weapon

Where to find Portland’s best Russian, Georgian, Uzbek and Ukrainian dumplings.

Kachka: Chef Bonnie Morales’ elevated spin on classic dishes from the former Soviet states. Go for the Siberian pelmeni, hexagonal dumplings stuffed with beef, pork, veal and onion. (720 S.E. Grand Ave., 503-235-0059, kachkapdx.com)
DaNet:A semi-monthly Russian pop-up from Vitaly Paley, chef at Paley’s Place and Imperial, which often features Georgian khinkali. (At Portland Penny Diner, 410 S.W. Broadway. Next up, a pair of dinners Feb. 20th and 21st. Check imperialpdx.com for updates.)
Restaurant Uzbekistan: An unlikely — but tasty — restaurant on the Portland-Gresham border, offering two styles of Uzbek dumplings, manti, vareniki and chuchvara. (18488 E. Burnside St., Gresham; 503-328-6057; uzbekgrill.com)
Kargi Gogo: A food cart focused on the street food of Georgia — the country, not the state — including a spin on “city-style” khinkali. (On Southwest Washington Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, 503-489-8432, kargigogo.com)
Russian Horse: A fun food cart focused on pierogi and the food of Russian, Ukraine and Poland. (1299 S.E. Lexington 971-599-1346, russianhorse.com)
Traditional Russian Cuisine: Of course Portland has two Russian-specific food carts. What else would you expect? (At Southeast Stark Street and 102nd Avenue, 503-449-1531, pdxrussiancuisine.com)

“It seems that most every culture has some sort of dumpling in their cuisine,” Fredericks wrote from Georgia, where the couple were traveling. “What makes khinkali unique is the way in which they’re folded, and the fact that they are juicy on the inside and should be eaten in a certain way.”

Khinkali hail from the mountains, Fredericks added, sheep-herding country, and are often made with lamb or some other meat and onions spiced with “dzira” — Georgian caraway. That filling is rolled up in thin, strong dough and boiled. Traditionally, each dumpling traditionally has 19 folds — compare with 18 for xiao long bao — though Fredericks says he more often sees 10 to 12. When the mountain dumpling reached the city, vendors added chopped herbs, leading to “kalakuri,” or “city khinkali,” the style served at Kargi Gogo.

“The key is to seal the dumpling with a small ‘nub’ on top,” Fredericks wrote. “This ‘nub’ is then used as a sort-of handle while taking a bite, drinking out the juice and then eating the meat.”

Whether to eat the nub is a matter of personal preference.

“It’s just dough, so for a lot of people it just takes up room in the stomach that could be better filled with more khinkali.”

“Over the last 20 years, Georgia has emerged from the cloud of the Soviet Union as a place with a rich culinary tradition, its people fiercely proud of their food,” Fredericks wrote. “As more people come to Georgia and more Georgians move to other parts of the world, khinkali are turning up … in western Europe, the Middle East and the United States.”

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At Kachka, keeping up with Portland’s newfound love for pelmeni, named one of The Oregonian’s Best New Dishes of 2014, hasn’t always been easy.

“Pelmeni is one of our core items, it’s literally on our sign,” Morales said. “That’s the one thing we never 86. But it’s been close, where we were literally making the filling and dough to order. That’s never fun.”

One thing that makes their lives easier: Because of their backstory, pelmeni are sometimes described as a “natural frozen food,” Morales says. If business is slow enough, the restaurant can get ahead by making three or four days worth of dumplings.

“Because they freeze really well, families in colder climates like Siberia would get together to make these dumplings by hand, then throw them out the window into the snow as they’re made,” Morales says. “Then, when you went out to hunt, you’d just take a sack of those and cook them over the fire.

“When you go into a grocery store in Russia today, you’ll see brand after brand in bags, or freezers filled with loose pelmeni that you scoop out into a bag and buy by the pound.”

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Paley thinks Portland’s obsession with pelmeni, khinkali and Russo-Soviet cuisine in general could trace back to the spotlight cast on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, or the notoriety caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

“I just see a lot more interest from people,” Paley says. “Russia, again, is in the eye of the public. Every time I turn on the television, there’s some kind of die-hard movie with the Russians playing the villains. The fascination with Russia never really went away, it’s just resurging.”

But Paley’s interest in khinkali is less historical, more personal, giving the chef a chance to get in touch with his Russian childhood.

“When I was a kid, my mom and her friend would make these incredibly large stuffed pelmeni,” Paley says. “We would eat them with a little bit of sour cream and white vinegar. But everything that I’ve learned about cooking professionally was either here or in France.

“To be able to go back in time and re-learn those dishes my mother cooked has been a special journey.”

— Michael Russell

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