Dumpling Therapy (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 15
About a year ago, I awoke to find the famous dumpling map whirling around on the interwebs. That map, lifted (!#@) from Rachel Laudan’s classic work on food history, Cuisine and Empire, had gone viral the year before. It showed the journeys of the humble dumpling, as it moved out of Asia, crawling through frozen Siberia, before plopping down in balmy Eastern Europe. The map also displayed the dumpling traipsing through the Silk Road, as it trekked across Central Asia and the Middle East. Its final destination? Naturally, the gorgeous beaches of the Mediterranean.
Then Carl found it. Probably second- or third-hand (as usual, without attribution). If you don’t know Carl Zha, you should. He is a Cal Tech grad and famous Internet personality, with 58K Twitter followers. By day, he surfs the blue waves of Bali, and by night, he runs a show about Chinese history, politics, and trivia. He is also an avid reader of this blog and a friend of yours truly. What can I say? A man with discerning taste.
Carl also has an opinion about the origins of the dumpling. When he discovered Laudan’s map, he leapt on the chance to finish an argument with the Armenians. “Let’s settle this once for all,” he declared via Twitter. “Mongol conquest spread dumplings from China to the rest of the world.”
Carl’s post got attention.
“Impressive scholarship,” wrote one. Others, though, were less happy. One woman responded, “Noodles, macaroni etc. also, so let’s settle this forever: everything came from China when the rest of the world were just a bunch of underdeveloped #####. Am I right?”
The exchange took me aback. I’m used to people reacting strongly to Carl’s posts. He thumbs his nose at American supremacy and has a quirky sense of humor. In true Carl style, he appended a video of monkeys throwing steamed buns.
The dumpling vehemence, however, did surprise me. I mean there’s plenty to fight about. War, abortion, taxes. Even kimchi.
I shook my head as I read the irate post. “Time for a social media detox,” I thought to myself. “That person needs a trip to the spa. So what if the Chinese invented the dumpling? Anyway, is it productive to fight about origins?”
Before answering these questions, I must issue the following disclaimers. The first is that I don’t condone violence, even over food history. The second is that I respectfully disagree with Carl. I don’t think the Chinese invented the dumpling.
The search for origins, however, can be productive, even if it makes your head spin. Actually I would say the head spinning is therapeutic. Why? Well, you let go. You let go of those myths of purity. Let go of the idea that originality is the same thing as excellence. Great cooking traditions, in fact, are as much derivative, as they are sui generis.
For me, a person proud of her Chinese heritage, the history of the dumpling has forced this reckoning. China may be a dumpling lover’s heaven, but it is not its original homeland. In this, the dumpling finds good company with another fine culinary product, the hotdog. The hotdog is a quintessentially American food with (shudder) European roots.
To see this, we must go back in time and better acquaint ourselves with Turkic peoples. By Turkic, I am not just thinking of folks in Turkey. Instead, I am talking about people who call themselves Turks and who live in a wide variety of places: Central Asia, Siberia, the Middle East, China, as well as Turkey.
Thousands of years ago, the Turks lived exclusively in Asia. Scholars debate whether they came from Central Asia or further east. One thing’s for sure; they moved around a lot. Early on in their history, they were good at riding horses and harvesting the milk for bubbly beers. And at some point in time, they got the travel bug. They moved into Northwest China, and hooked up with Chinese royals. Then some of them kept going West, laying down roots in Central Asia, while others settled in the Middle East and Turkey. A few more nested in Russia and Ukraine (we have these adventurous Turks to thank for Irina Shayk, better known as Bradley Cooper’s baby mamma).
Everywhere Turkic peoples went, they adopted the foodways of the locals. In Western China, the food has Chinese elements. In Central Asia, you’ll spot Iranian touches (next time, we’ll hear about pilaf). But there are a few commonalities that unite people in the Turkic world. Language. Yogurt. Manti (the label in many languages for dumpling).
Scholars suspect that Turkic tribesmen or traders introduced the Chinese to dumplings just under two thousand years ago. I have to admit that I was initially skeptical. Part of me wanted to scream, “It’s Chinese darn it!” After all, the Chinese are today better known for their dumplings than the Turks.
But Chinese sources— “The Ode to Bing (ca. 265 AD)” — hint of foreign origins. The author, Mr. Shu, puts it plainly. And here, I quote Professor Knechtges’ translation: “[S]ome of these names [for wheat products] originate in the villages and lanes, and some of the methods for making them come from alien lands.” Then our eccentric poet listed a string of foreign-sounding words for stuffed pasta.
So we have a Chinese poet fessing up about the foreign origins of the dumpling and other pasta products, but this leaves the question, which alien lands?
This is where it is nice to have friends who are linguists. The word here for dumpling is mantou 馒头 (a term, confusingly, that means “steamed buns” in Chinese today). According to linguists, the term is an obvious loan word from a foreign language, probably in the Turkic language family. The ancient Chinese just chose characters that approximated the sound of the foreign word. In ancient China, mantou was pronounced man-teh (just like in Turkish). If you’re straining for a different example of a loan word, consider pudding. People in China say bu-ding 布丁, or, to use an example close to my heart, bulangni 布朗尼 is ‘brownie.’
People only borrow foreign words when they don’t have an existing label. Think sushi, tofu, and seitan: all of these are words adopted from another language into English. In the case of seitan, it makes sense that Americans adopted the term. They weren’t previously in the habit of making meat substitutes from gluten!
Loan words, though, can only tell you so much. For example, they will reveal who you borrowed the word from. But they will not necessarily expose the original instigator.
If you’re confused, let’s go back to seitan. This was a Chinese invention, but it has a Japanese name in English. Why? Because it was first brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants. With the case of the dumpling, mantou tells us who the Chinese learned their tricks for crimping dough. It does *not* unveil the inventor.
Foreign or not, the Chinese took to the dumpling. After a few hours of training, they got the hang of rolling out their dough thin and pinching the pockets into shape. And after a few more centuries, the dumpling had become such a fixture in Chinese cuisine, its origin was irrelevant. New names — for example, jiaozi 餃子 — also helped people forget the dumpling’s foreign roots. Dumplings are now a traditional food eaten during Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in China.
The Chinese, however, were *not* the only people to take to these foreign pockets. The Koreans also got the manti bug. Their version of dumplings are called mandu, and they are full of things like kimchi. Then folks in India and Nepal wanted some of the action. Their dumplings, which go by momos, serve with chutney. The Japanese were last to the game. They call their pan-fried dumplings gyoza. In case you’re wondering, that’s the Japanese pronunciation of the characters for jiaozi.
I doubt we will ever figure out the identity of the original inventor of the dumpling. But the dumpling is now everyone’s food. It’s 100% Chinese, Korean, Armenian, as well as Turkish.
At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter who got there first. The exercise isn’t about priority, since no one here will make any money with a patent! If anything, the takeaway is this: when it comes to dough, we’re all better off being a little derivative.
I highly recommend making your own dumplings from scratch. You can always buy the skins, but why do that? You just need flour and water to make them. I have set out the recipe here in a blog for my students last year. Fun fact: every person has a unique way of folding dough. Think of it like handwriting. Supposedly, you can read my personality from my crimping strategy.
I have also put together instructions for people who prefer the translucent ones, which come in gluten-free varieties. These were staples of my Cantonese childhood. I used to eat them every weekend at dim sum. But they are very easy to make and I managed to find all of the ingredients on Amazon.
Since some of you asked, I thought I would post a link to a recipe for Turkish manti!
Sources for this blog:
Buell, Paul D., Eugene N. Anderson, Montserrat de Pablo Moya, Moldir Okenbay, Crossroads of Cuisine: The Eurasian Heartland, the Silk Road and Food (E.J. Brill, 2020).
Dunlop, Fuchsia. ”Barbarian Heads and Turkish Dumplings: The Chinese Word Mantou.” In Wrapped & Stuffed Foods: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012, ed. Mark McWilliams, 128-143. Totnes, Devon, England: Prospect Books, 2013. Google ebook available for free! She does a great job with the various words for dumpling over Chinese history, and synthesizing Buell, Anderson, & others.
Knechtges, David R. “Dietary Habits: Shu Xi’s ‘Rhapsody on Pasta’” In Wendy Swartz, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu and Jessey Choo eds. Early Medieval China : A Sourcebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
Laudan, Rachel. Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
Lin-Liu,Jen. On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta (London: Penguin, 2013): “Central Asia,” 115-80.
Buell, Paul D, and Anderson, Eugene N. A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao - Introduction, Translation, Commentary, and Chinese Text. BRILL, 2010. (U-M ebook).