“Nothing can be more delicious than jiaozi, and nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep.” Chinese proverb
Dumplings are soporific in nature. Their skins – sometimes glutinous and tacky, other times more reminiscent of Western white fluffy buns – are always satisfyingly stodgy, no matter what method of cooking they require. It is these starchy carb-heavy wrappers that inspire that pleasing feeling of fullness. Indeed, they were eaten to satiate appetite and provide nourishment for the workers who spent the majority of their lives outside in often freezing temperatures, and their invention meant it was possible to turn paltry ingredients into wholesome meals.
The history of the dumpling is heavily contested. While all roads concerning the Asian dumpling – most notably the Silk Road – inevitably lead to China, there are many variations that can be found across the entire world: the banh bot luc from Vietnam, the gyoza from Japan, the Georgian khinkali, the Swedish kroppkakor, the Nepalese momo, the Brazilian empanada, ravioli from Italy. The list goes on and on.
While it is true that some dumplings sprung up independently (the Brazilian empanada for example), the similarities between the Chinese wonton or jiaozi and the Italian tortellini is likely not coincidental but a consequence of the commercial and culinary exchange along the ancient Silk Road.
It is believed that it was the introduction of millstones from Iran that made wheat flour dumplings possible in China, and it is likely that these millstones were introduced via trade on the Silk Road. While dumplings in recent years are made from any number of ingredients – rice flour, tapioca starch – it is the wheat flour dumplings that initially led the way.
As with most culinary heritages, the exact origin of the Chinese dumpling is unknown. While some legends attribute the inception of the dumpling to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), the earliest recorded evidence of the dumpling traces back to Turpan, a city situated along the Silk Road in the modern Xinjiang Province, a vast region of bleak deserts and mountains in the northwest of China, dating back to the 7-8th century.
Although located in what is essentially nothingness, Turpan (translated to ‘the lowest place’ in Uygur due to its position in the Turpan basin) proved to be an important trade centre, and is still considered the hub between Xinjiang and the eastern part of China.
The food in Turpan is unrecognisable to the Chinese fare enjoyed in the West. It is heavily influenced by the people who live there, predominantly the Uyghur who practise Islam and cook using the spices and cooking techniques inherent in Arabic gastronomy: cumin, chilli, cinnamon, saffron and sesame are all used in abundance, while lamb – the preferred meat in this region – is grilled over charcoal pits, and outdoor pit ovens known as tonur are used to bake doughy bread. It is here, in the furthest flung parts of northeast China, that the dumpling arguably gained notoriety.
China’s love affair with the dumpling is sturdily rooted in history and folklore. While the dumpling is very much an integral part of China’s past, it also has its place in China’s culinary future.