The Mantou Odyssey

How did the Yuan Dynasty’s popular breakfast set about a steaming trail of fluffy, globus deliciousness including momo, mantu and Japanese manju.  

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures: Sriracha; Bibigo

Say Mantou, and history pages throw open two different tales of its origin: The first, and the more popular one, is from the tome The Origin of Things. Written during the Song Dynasty rule by Gao Cong, it describes Mantou as these steamed or fried fluffy balls with filling and credits Chancellor Zhuge Liang, a brilliant political strategist of the Shu Kingdom, to be the creator. The legend has it, which Gao too reiterates in his book, that while returning from a campaign, Zhuge was faced with a turbulent sea condition. According to local tradition back then, it was believed that the sea had to be offered with sacrifice in order to peacefully pass through. Known for his diplomatic ways, the chancellor unwilling to sacrifice his men ordered the kitchen to steam these hollow balls made of flour to resemble heads. And these were the ones that were thrown into the sea the next day. Thus, getting Zhuge a safe passage through without sacrifice, and mantou the initial moniker of barbarian head.  

GIVEN CHINA’S MIGHT AROUND the early Mongolian period and even during the its Warring States Period around 220 AD, the story looks plausible with one small dent. Even back then, says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sriracha, “food, cooked in court or war field were always named either by the ingredient or the process. Hence, the barbarian head concept looks a little farfetched.”

A point that medicinal cookbook written by Uighur Imperial doctor Hu Sihui, Soup of Qan refutes too. Sihui, who was part of the royal retinue during the Yuan Dynasty rule – the descendants of Genghis Khan, is said to have mentioned dumpling akin to mantou as a popular breakfast with the royal family. In fact, the fact that mantou were not filled, according to Sihui, “worked for the dumpling as it was often prepared in advanced, loaded on horse backs and taken to distant places.”

IT IS SAID TO BE AS SIGNIFICANT A PART OF THE ROYAL TRAVEL FOOD, as it was part of the essential for an army – and eventually traders. This may explain not only the popularity of mantou among the many bao peers that may have come around the time, but also of how the fluffy, smooth ball reached different regions of the world to create variants like Afghani Mantu, Japanese Manju, Nepalese Momo and Thai Salopao and Korean Mandu to name a few.  

But how did Mantou originate and travel?

WHILE MOST HISTORIAN ARE STILL PUZZLED ABOUT THE EXACT ORIGIN OF THE DISH, including scholars from Asian studies who guesstimate it around the Zhou Era when fermented breads are a thing, and the rise of bing, which was, a flat, unleavened bread that may have been brought in by the Arab traders and made widely by the Uighur community, however, what’s known is how it gained the Silk Route popularity.  War and trading, says Chef Seth, “were the only two ways through which Mantou or its earlier avatar could have travelled the culinary highway, which back till the 15th century was the Silk Route managed and guarded by the Chinese ruling dynasty on this side of the Asian fence. And since these steamed, fluffy, unfilled dumplings had the shelf life to travel, chances are they made it first to any border along with the first unit of soldiers than the rest of the baos or dim sum.”  

A FASCINATING STORY IS OF HOW THE CHINESE MANTOU LED to the creation of the Korean Mandu. Food lore has it that during the Mongolian reign, the emperor attached what today is South Korea. The standoff went for too long.  Bored and with little to do, the Chinese soldiers mingled and married women of the tony villages they were able to conquer within the first few days, and thus Mantou, a soldier sustenance, was introduced into the tribe and eventually became Mandu, a dumpling filled to its brim.

INCIDENTALLY, THE MUSED CREATION UNLIKE MANTOU HAD FILLING, albeit vegetarian given that the ruling Goryeo dynasty followed the diktat of Mahayana Buddhism and had banned meat consumption.  The three Mandu that were created during the period and later, most of which made it to not only the royal table but also became part of different rituals, were the half-moon-shaped dumplings called Byungsi, sea cucumber-shaped Mimandu, and Hansum Mandu. And in years later, a summer special called Pyeonsu that was filled with zucchini, bean sprouts, and beef and has this distinct square shape, and is served in chilled soup.  

THE TALE IS LIKE THAT OF JAPANESE MANJU, a simple sweet treat created by the Japanese envoy that brought back baskets of Mantou that translates in Japanese into Manju with them in 1341. Made in endless variety today, and a significant part of the tea culture there, the first Manju called the Shiose Souhonke followed the exact bun recipe as their Chinese counterpart and filled it with a sweetened paste of anko, usually made from boiled adzuki beans and sugar. Of course, over the years, as Japanese tea culture evolved, so did their confectionary culture, and in them Manju, which today has over a dozen variants of the original filled mantou – all in different colours, filling and texture.  

The other reason, continues the oriental specialist, “was of course religion, especially Buddhism that travelled through the same route to and fro different places, and the rise in popularity of wheat flour, which came across as this fascinating ingredient that had the power to bind, which was better than the potato starch and rice that was in use around the time.”

THE NEPALI MOMO, A STAPLE FOR MOUNTAIN PEOPLE, is yet another excellent example of mantou’s charm, albeit like others this neighbouring brother too went the filled way, and is today a staple not just in Nepal but in most hilly regions of India.  

How did Mantou become so popular? Functionality and versatility, says Chef Seth, “became the three primary reasons why Mantou rose not only as a popular breakfast during the Yuan period, but also as one of the interesting bao varieties that could be played with, even if it remained unfilled. Like the traditional Chinese fried Mantou that can be dipped in condensed meal to create this deliciously crisp, sweet treat. Or be cut open to stuffed like a burger.”

It is the latter what Chef Seth exactly did to create the Mantou Sub, which, like its original, comes in both steamed and fried format with fillings that are inspired by the different version of this Yuan dynasty popular breakfast, except for the soup, points Chef Seth, who often recreates the sweet Mantou on demand.  

THE BEAUTY OF MANTOU, says Chef Seth, “is that it has both the lightness of a bao and the delicious smoothness of a dim sum making it an elevated version to both. And the unobtrusive taste ensures it can be paired with a filling pairing from any Asian or Oriental region, and more. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to call it the Silk Route Super-burger at all.”

“This could be the reason that Mantou was also a part of Mahjong tournament, after all, you could just munch on the fluffiness of this soft bao and feel satiated,” says Chef Seth, who while creating his tile-collection of Mantou Sub has stayed true to the traditional recipe that inspired many, except for one little change – “our Mantou are made with flour and potato flour, not much of rice.”