Somewhere between Southern chicken-and-dumpling soup and Chinese jiaozi sit Russian pel'meni. In the dumpling world, they're the equivalent of giving your irresistible new love interest a belly-button raspberry. The adorable dough balls are small -- varying from the size of a cotton ball to the size of a ping-pong ball -- and may be stuffed with beef, pork, fish or occasionally mushroom; sauerkraut or potato mixed with onion, garlic and salt and pepper; and served with sour cream, vinegar, butter, pepper and other condiments. As with all dumplings, pel'meni (alternatively spelled "pelmeni") vary regionally across Eurasia; recipes that combine the aforementioned ingredients are also popular.
Pel'meni probably originated in Siberia, where foods that could be made ahead, frozen and stored for long periods of time have long been especially valued; while the word literally means "bread ear," pel'meni have thinner, more delicate dough than their Eastern European and East Asian cousins, with substantial filling in place of doughiness. In modern Russia, cooks can buy pel'meni molds to help with the laborious process of making the dough, rolling it, cutting it, filling each dumpling and pinching the dough to make a large batch for freezing and storing; they can also be bought frozen at any Russian supermarket, though this form of pel'meni is considered, much like ramen in the U.S., the realm of bachelors and students.
Madison is blessed with two solid, though very different, pel'meni purveyors. At Belle Pizzelle at East Towne Mall, the chance to sit down for a bowl of hot dumplings at a cozy bistro table is a welcome respite from traditional mall fare; the prospect of hot food is especially intriguing amid the selection of Belle Pizzelle's other offerings, which consist of desserts, pastries and coffee drinks. The pel'meni, downright lovable with their little central knot, boast chewy dough, gently spiced beef and a side of delightfully tangy, mildly spiced sour cream to dollop. There's only the meat option here, and at $6 for a modest portion there is an element of mall pricing at play. But service is friendly (allow 10 minutes for preparation, as the menu warns, and maybe invest in a cookie to eat while you wait), and those who prefer a chewy, slightly larger pel'meni (say, those who are accustomed to Chinese steamed dumplings and need a little hand-holding as they downsize) will be right at home.
Choose Belle Pizzelle over just about anything else at East Towne, but if you're really on the pel'meni hunt, Belle's has nothing on Paul's Pel'meni on West Gorham, just off State Street. For $6.50 for a full portion (big enough for two people to split, as they're surprisingly filling; the half option is an excellent snack or light lunch for one), you'll be rewarded handsomely: Paul's pel'meni are served with "the works," a luxurious mixture of butter, yellow curry, sweet chili sauce, cilantro and a side of sour cream.
Here, there's a potato option for the vegetarians, and it's such a good foil to the surprisingly spicy sauce that it's become my default option. (You can also combine beef and potato for what might loosely be considered a four-food-group meal). The delicate little pel'meni glisten with butter and practically glow with bright yellow curry, fresh cilantro and generous red sauce, which I'm told is a mixture of sriracha and vinegar, for a stunning visual display.
Excellent service perfects the experience; there isn't much to look at in the small eating area, but you'll be so buried in dumplings you're unlikely to notice or care. If you can't bring yourself to finish your helping, take it home; cold pel'meni with "the works" are a delightful midnight snack.