The introduction of soft Chinese steamed buns (Mantou), for many across Asia and elsewhere, can be attributed to the movie Shaolin Soccer (2001). However, the history of this bun is much older than that. Mantou, a yeast-leavened steamed bun, is an integral part of Chinese cuisine.
History of Bao and other steamed buns
It is believed that Mantou, for the first time, was introduced by the Northern Han Chinese, circa 3rd century B.C, as a result of their cultural exchange with the tribes to the North. Traditionally, Mantou was a soft steamed bun. With time, in Southern China, however, this bun came to be known as Bao.
Later on, unfilled Mantou was referred to as just Mantou, while the filled/stuffed Mantou became renowned as Bao.
While Mantou is mostly served with sweet condensed or soy milk, Bao, stuffed with pork, chicken meat, or veggies, is served with tea. There are fried and grilled Bao too. The Uyghur Muslims prepare a Tandoori Baos, often filled with lamb meat and baked in tandoors. Xiaolongbao, popular in the Shanghai region of China, is made by steaming the Bao filled with pork meat broth. There are many such local varieties of Mantou and Bao in China.
Notably, the Chinese culture has existed for centuries, claiming the title of one of the oldest in Asia. Therefore, over the centuries, due to the cultural exchanges and increase of Chinese influence in neighboring countries, Mantou has also become a part of the local cuisine in many other parts of Asia. Two of these countries are Malaysia and Indonesia, which adopted Mantou and Bao in their local cuisine due to the increased influx of Chinese immigrants and the influence of their culture. Kaya Bao, famous in Indonesia and Malaysia, is stuffed with Kaya Jam. Kaya jam is made from mixing coconut, egg, and the fragrant leaves of the Pandan plant.
When the Mantou recipe reached Japan around the 14th century A.D, it took up the name ‘Manju’ and soon proliferated into many different dishes. One of these, the Mizu Manju, is a transparent bun with sweet red bean paste filling. The Matcha Manju has a fresh taste of green tea embedded in it because of the addition of ground tea leaves while cooking. Japanese Manju is mostly sweet confectionaries because of the red bean paste, sweet potatoes, and several other fillings that are commonly stuffed inside these buns.
In North and South Korea, Mantou took the form of ‘Mandu’ dumplings, which are steamed, fried, and boiled. Kimchi-Mandu, with its signature Korean Kimchi filling, is a very popular Mandu and is generally eaten on New Year’s eve.
When the Bao recipe reached India through Tibet and Nepal, it became known as Momos. Momos, fried and steamed, are served with different kinds of spicy sauces.
While the Chinese took the Mantou eastwards, the Turkic and Mongol hordes were responsible for carrying the bun toward the west. Turkic warriors once ruled the land between Egypt and India. And ‘Manti,’ the name they gave to the Mantou dumplings, was one factor for their military success in the region. These warriors carried dried Manti balls filled with the horse, beef, or lamb meat on horsebacks wherever they went. Manti dumplings could be instantly cooked and saved much time that the warriors would have otherwise wasted in cooking and camping.
Traditionally, the Ottoman Turks used to steam their Manti dumplings and fill them with chickpeas and pound lamb or beef meat. The modern Turkish people, however, like to bake and boil their Manti. The Central Asian Turkic tribes add squash and black pepper to the meaty filling inside this bun. The Manti is steamed and topped with butter. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, steamed Manti is filled with kidney beans, garlic, onion, and lamb/beef meat and is served with a tomato sauce.
Usual procedure of making Mantou and its variants
The exterior of the bun is usually made of white wheat flour. However, at times, substitutes like corn flour can also be used for preparing the Mantou. Yeast and baking powder are added to the Flour, which is then kneaded slowly with the help of water. After leaving the dough to sit for approximately 30 minutes, one can either place the filling inside the cut pieces of dough or steam, bake, boil or fry the unfilled Mantou balls. By trying out different fillings, toppings, and dips, one can emulate different types of Mantou-inspired steamed buns.
From the small and handy Turkic Manti dumplings to the sweet, confectionery-flavored Japanese Manju, owing to its simplicity, Mantou has now become an integral part of the local cultures and cuisines throughout Asia.