Are you confused about dumplings? What exactly is a dim sum? Is wonton faint? What about Momo then? And how do all the Italian dumplings – ravioli, tortellini and rest – fit in?
Don’t be alarmed. I’m confused as hell. Most people. And the connection between Italian pasta dumplings and Chinese dim sum could have anyone worried. Korean-American chef David Chang has even dedicated an episode of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious to try and de-link.
Other chefs used similarities and confusion constructively and created exquisite dishes. When Michel Girard, one of the pioneers of the new French cuisine, went to China, he was so fascinated by dim sum that he went back to France and invented the mushroom ravioli, made with rice flour and served with a China-influenced broth. (It was an instant classic.)
It’s 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’s pasta returning to Italy from China, and thus, helped create spaghetti, could 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, made dumplings of some sort. If they have access to ovens, the dumplings become mini dumplings. Otherwise, they were steamed or fried. We did it too. Just think about it: what is a kachori? Isn’t it some kind of fried dumpling?
Therefore, you will find dumplings all over the world: pierogi in Poland, mantu in Afghanistan, pelmeni in Russia, etc. Any parcel wrapped in dough with a savory filling is a dumpling of some kind.
Is there really a universal connection between them all? Well, sometimes there is. Italian calzone, South American empanada, Middle Eastern samosa and our own samosa have a common origin. (But that’s another column for another time).
There is no doubt that dim sum has spread to other countries that were within China’s sphere of influence. It can be confusing to define clearly because dim sum can take many different forms.
Long before dishes billed as dim sum took off on the menu in India, local Chinese restaurants were serving wontons. If these pancakes get into the soup, they are usually boiled. If served on its own, it is well fried. We didn’t know it at the time but we were eating dim sum. Because that is what wontons are.
We were also eating dim sum when we ate Momo. 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 sphere of influence. Even Tibetans who deny that Tibet was historically part of China will admit that there are many cultural and food connections.
Not all dim sum follows the elegant and sophisticated styles of today’s Chinese restaurants where the steaming should be perfect and the skin of each dumpling should be translucent. There are many rustic dumplings made by the poor that also fall into the dim sum category. The first Tibetan momos were simple peasant dishes. And in such Tibetan centers as Dharamsala in India, they still are.
There have always been close links between Tibet and Nepal, and the Nepalese got momo from Tibet but made it by seasoning it with masalidar fillings and hot sauces. To this day, you will find Nepalese who insist that momo is a Nepalese dish. But then, people in northeastern India make the same claims of ownership of Momo, although in fact Momo did not reach this part of India until the 1960s after Tibetans set up shops and stalls there
The Japanese can be prickly when it comes to admitting that gyoza is of Chinese ancestry but there seems little doubt that they are descended from a northern Chinese dumpling called jiaozi. There is some dispute about the exact origins of gyoza although one theory dates the development of Japanese gyoza to the late 1940s.
But because we’re dealing with the Japanese here, their geyosa is more refined than many of the dim-witted Chinese. The wrappers are thinner and the padding is finely textured.
Italians have almost as many dumplings as the Chinese have dim sum. Their dumplings differ from dim sum in one important aspect. They rarely eat alone. They almost always come in a sauce of some sort – as do, in fact, all kinds of pasta.
You’ll likely come across tortellini, which is notable for its round shape. Tortellini is a name Italians use to confuse foreigners when serving large tortellini. Ravioli are the classic stuffed pasta, usually flat. A complex form of ravioli is agnolotti from Piedmont in the north.
There are many other types but once you start eating them, you will realize that the similarity to dim sum is actually very superficial. With the possible exception of tortellini in brodo (a clear broth) which you can compare to wonton soup, they are not the same at all.
There is one important difference. All Italian dumplings use cheese in one form or another. On the other hand, the Chinese don’t use much dairy and hate cheese.
Yes, East is East and West is West and the twins diverge very quickly in the world of dumplings, no matter how similar they may seem at first.