The great debate: are dombolo and dumplings the same thing?

Here's what some prominent foodies have to say

04 June 2020 - 11:55
By hilary biller AND Hilary Biller
Chicken with dombolo.
Image: Sunday Times Food archive Chicken with dombolo.

If there's one food that'll remain the symbol of SA's lockdown it's homemade bread. While housebound, we've embraced the wonders of the kitchen and learnt new baking skills, whether it's been making more complex sourdoughs or simple baking powder breads.

Add the chill of winter and another conversation is stirring around bread. This time the topic is a traditional bread which, rather than being baked in an oven, is steamed, giving it a comforting softness.

The common name for this delicacy is dombolo, which translates as dumpling. That said, some foodies are adamant dombolo and dumplings are two different things.

One of them is food writer and stylist Dorah Sitole, former editor of True Love magazine. She says that dombolo uses yeast as the leavening agent, while dumplings use baking powder or self-raising flour. The method of cooking also differs.

“A dombolo is a yeast bread steamed in a container in a pot of boiling water,” Sitole explains. “You really wouldn’t make a yeast dough for dumplings that are cooked over a stew, because it takes time; first you've got to knead the dough and then allow it to rise before cooking.”

Celebrity chef Zola Nene shared her views on the subject during a recent radio interview. She says that in isiZulu, if the bread is steamed separately in a pot it's called ujeqe, whereas if it's cooked on top of a stew then it's dombolo or dumplings.

Her recipe for a mouthwatering chicken stew with dombolo, which can be found on her website, uses yeast.

Whatever your take on the great debate, one thing we can all agree on is that dombolo are delicious and the perfect companion to warming wintry dishes.


Serves: 4-6


750ml (3 cups) flour

250ml (1 cup) maize meal (you can replace this with flour, if you prefer)

1 x 10g sachet dry yeast

30ml (2 tbsp) sugar

5ml (1 tsp) salt

1 egg beaten

About 500ml (2 cups) lukewarm water (or water mixed with milk)


  1. Sift the flour and mix in the maize meal, yeast, sugar and salt.
  2. Mix the egg with the water and add enough lukewarm liquid to the dry ingredients to form a soft but pliable dough.
  3. Knead for 10 minutes.
  4. Cover the dough with plastic and leave to rise until double in size. 
  5. Knock down the dough and place in a greased enamel bowl. Allow to rise once again until double in size before steaming.
  6. Meanwhile prepare a pot for steaming: bring water to the boil in a pot large enough to hold the bowl containing the dombolo. 
  7. Immerse the bowl in the hot water (the water should come one third of the way up the sides of the bowl). Seal the pot tightly and simmer gently for 1 hour. Avoid opening the lid while steaming. Replenish the water if necessary.
  8. To serve, cut the dombolo into wedges.


  • To make a herb dombolo, add 30ml (2 tbsp) chopped parsley.
  • For corn dombolo, add 1 x 400g can whole kernel corn, well drained, when you knock down the dough.