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Dumplings are a family of food preparations found in almost every culture, based on the combination of a sticky basic binder, usually a flour or starch but sometimes gelatin; other binders, such as egg; and possibly flavoring agents. Many dumplings are not flavored, as with most pasta, German spaetzle, or West African fufu, but absorb flavor from the liquid in which they cook.

Cooks find that the general definition of dumpling as an absorbent preparation to be useful in planning meals, even when a given food, such as a noodle, is not often called a dumpling. The important aspect of dumpling-ness is that it can absorb flavors from cooking liquids or sauces, if it is not independently flavored.

Other dumplings, such as ravioli, pierogi, or won ton may have a relatively bland outer coating but a highly flavored filling.

Cooking methods vary widely. Boiling or simmering is most common, but they may be steamed (e.g., tamales, Chinese filled bread rolls such as char shu bow or gai bow), fried (e.g. pierogi), or baked (e.g., empanadas). Some preparations involve multiple cooking methods, such as steaming followed by frying.

They are usually served hot, but many, such as gefilte fish, may be presented cold. While most dumplings are part of entrees or appetizers, some, such as the empanada or Chinese steamed bread, may be eaten with the hands, like a sandwich

Dumplings may be appetizers, the centerpiece of a meal, an accompaniment to the main dish, or a dessert.

Idiomatically, it may be a term of endearment, as "my little dumpling".