The fluffy steamed dumplings known as mantou are traditionally eaten in northern parts of China where wheat, as opposed to rice, is the staple crop.
The diet in northern and southern China differs hugely. While rice is enjoyed in the south, wheat-based carbohydrates such as bing (a flattened, disk-shaped bread similar to the French galette, the Indian roti or the German Dampfnudel), wheat noodles (as opposed to rice noodles) and mantou. The comforting stodginess of bing is tonic to the harsh temperatures and long winters endured in the northern provinces of China, while the light consistency of mantou provide the ideal accompaniment to dishes in the spring and summer.
Over the years, mantou became a daily food across the entirety of China, along with baozi, a similarly steamed wheat dough traditionally stuffed with meat, vegetables or bean paste.
There are variations of these dumplings found all along the Silk Road: the Kazakh manti, a dumpling stuffed with spiced meat is said to have originated from the ancient cooking of the Uyghur Turks who inhabit the northern provinces of China; the Korean mandu, served with a slick of bright red chilli oil, a pile of vinegary kimchi and a dipping sauce of soy, vinegar and chilli; the Tibetan momo, stuffed with yak meat and presented piping hot, seasoned with ground peanut, Szechuan pepper and coriander; and the buuz from Mongolia, traditionally prepared weeks before the Mongolian New Year and left outside to freeze before they are enjoyed alongside salads and fried bread, milk-tea and vodka.
A popular Chinese folklore dating back to the Ming Dynasty says that the name mantou originates from the homophonous word mántóu, which literally means ‘barbarian head’.
In the story, Zhuge Liang, chancellor of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE), led the Shu army to the southern lands of Shu (present-day Yunnan in China and northern Myanmar) on an invasion into southern China. After defeating the Nanman king Meng Huo and on their return to the north, Zhuge Liang and his army came across a violent and ferocious river which they were unable to cross. A barbarian lord told Liang that the barbarians would usually sacrifice 49 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river deity who would allow them to pass safely. Zhuge Liang, in an attempt to save his men and avoid more bloodshed, ordered the army to slaughter any cows and horses they had brought along and fill buns shaped like human heads with their meat. After they had crossed the river, Zhuge Liang named the bun ‘barbarian head’.