Are you confused by dumplings, dim sum, momo and more? Let's debunk it all
It is tempting to say that the Chinese invented dumplings and sent them around the world. But the truth is that most societies, once they got their hands on flour, created dumplings of some sort.
Are you confused by dumplings? What exactly is a dim sum? Is a wonton a dim sum? What about a momo, then? And how do all the Italian dumplings— the ravioli, tortellini and rest —fit in?
Don’t be alarmed. I am confused as hell too. Most people are. And the connection between Italy’s pasta dumplings and Chinese dim sum can freak anyone out. The Korean-American chef David Chang even devoted an episode of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious to trying to unravel the connection.
Other chefs have used the similarities and the confusion constructively and created great dishes. When Michel Guerard, one of the pioneers of French nouvelle cuisine, went to China, he was so fascinated by dim sum that he came back to France and invented a ravioli of mushrooms, made with rice flour and served with a Chinese-influenced broth. (It was an instant classic).
It is tempting to say that the Chinese invented dumplings and sent them around the world. The people who made up that absurd story about Marco Polo taking noodles back to Italy from China and, therefore, assisting in the creation of spaghetti, could well have made a similar claim about dim sum and tortellini.
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But the truth is that most societies, once they got their hands on flour, created dumplings of some sort. If they had access to ovens, the dumplings became little pies. Otherwise, they were steamed or deep fried. We did it too. Just think about it: What is a kachori? Isn’t it a fried dumpling of some sort?
So, you will find dumplings all over the world: Pierogi in Poland, mantu in Afghanistan, pelmeni in Russia and so on. Any dough-wrapped parcel with a savoury filling is a dumpling of some kind.
Is there really a global connection between all of them? Well, sometimes there is. The Italian calzone, the South American empanada, the Middle Eastern sambousek and our own samosa do have a common origin. (But that’s another column for another time).
And there is no doubt that dim sum did spread to other countries that were within China’s sphere of influence. It can be confusing to spot clearly because dim sum can take various forms.
Long before dishes described as dim sum on the menu took off in India, local Chinese restaurants would serve wontons. If these wontons went into soup they were usually boiled. If they were served on their own, they were deep fried. We did not know it then but we were already eating dim sum; because that is what wontons are.
We were also eating dim sum when we ate momos. The momo originated in Tibet which, of course, is now part of China. But even before the Chinese army annexed it, there is no doubt that Tibet was already part of China’s area of influence. Even Tibetans who deny that Tibet has ever historically been a part of China, will concede that there were many cultural and foodie links.
Not all dim sum follow the sleek and sophisticated methods of today’s Chinese restaurants where the steaming must be perfect and the skin of each dumpling must be translucent. There are many rustic dumplings made by poor people which also fit into the dim sum category. The earliest Tibetan momos were simple, peasant dishes. And in such Tibetan centres as Dharamsala in India, they still are.
There were always close links between Tibet and Nepal and the Nepalese got the momo from Tibet but made it their own by spicing it up with masaledaar fillings and spicy sauces. To this day, you will find Nepalis who insist that momos are a Nepali dish. But then people in India’s Northeast make the same claims to ownership of momos, though in truth momos only reached that part of India in the 1960s after Tibetans set up shops and stalls there
The Japanese can be prickly when it comes to admitting that their gyoza are of Chinese origins but there seems little doubt that they are descended from a northern Chinese dumpling called jiaozi. The exact origins of the gyoza are in some dispute though one theory dates the development of Japanese gyoza to as late as the 1940s.
But because we are dealing with the Japanese here, their gyozas are more refined than many Chinese dim sum. The wrappers are thinner and the filling is finely textured.
The Italians have almost as many dumplings as the Chinese have dim sum. Their dumplings differ from dim sum in one important respect. They are hardly ever eaten on their own. They nearly always come in a sauce of some kind --- as indeed, does all pasta.
The ones you are most likely to come across include tortellini, which are distinguished by their ring shape. Tortollini is a name Italians use to confuse foreigners when large tortellini are served. Ravioli is the classic filled pasta and is usually flat. A complicated form of ravioli is agnolotti from Piedmont in the north.
There are many other kinds but once you start eating them you realise that the resemblance to dim sum is actually very superficial. With the possible exception of tortellini in brodo (a clear broth) which you could compare to wonton soup, they are not the same thing at all.
And there is one all important difference. All Italian dumplings use cheese in some form or the other. The Chinese, on the other hand, don’t use much dairy and they hate cheese.
So yes, east is east and west is west and the twain diverge quite quickly in the world of dumplings, no matter how similar it all seems in the beginning.