Cuisines of the world

Mantou and other steamed buns

We all can never forget the steamed bun scene from the movie, Shaolin Soccer, 2001Our mouths, probably, watered a bit for the taste of that amazing and fluffy-looking snack. Steamed buns have always been an integral part of Chinese cuisine. Northern Chinese, always in contact with Turkic tribes, came up with a dish called Mantou in Han period, circa 3rd century BC. It can’t be concretely said on who influenced who in terms of Mantou, because of constant cultural exchange between northern tribes and China at that time.
 Today, steamed buns, momos and dumplings have gained popularity from Turkey to Japan. Mantou was a huge influence on all of these dishes. 


1. Manti: Turkic tribes and Mongols were able to conquer huge swaths of land, thanks to Manti. Soldiers would pound meat of livestock and carry it in forms of dumplings, on their horses. Because of how different Turkic tribes were to each other and how at one point Turks controlled land from Egypt to India, Manti recipes vary significantly. The dough is made by kneading a mixture of eggs, wheat flour, salt and water. Fillings and topping change from region to region. In Central Asian regions, Manti is filled with ground lamb, horse or beef. The meat is sprinkled with black pepper powder and squash at times. The dumpling is giving a topping of butter or cream. It is served with onion or garlic sauce. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Manti, known regionally as Mantu, is filled with ground beef or lamb meat, peas, kidney beans and minced onions. It is then topped with lemon juice, yogurt sauce and mint. It is served with tomato-based sauce or carrot based stew. In Turkey and surroundings, Manti is boiled and baked rather than steamed. They like to fill their Manti with chickpeas along with pounded meat (lamb or beef) and onion. They top it with different kinds of sauces. Sumac flower and mint are used as toppings. In Turkey, unlike in Central Asia, Manti is usually smaller in size.


2. Mantou and Baozi: China is home to many steamed snacks. Mantou, as previously mentioned is one of the oldest steamed snacks of China. Mantou could either be filled or unfilled. In later centuries Baozi comes to be known as filled Mantou, while Mantou remains unfilled. Another name Momo is given to unfilled Mantou by Jin Chinese, which quickly caught up to Nepal and Tibet, where it became filled steamed buns. Today the whole world savors fried and steamed momos. Since it is popular in these countries, the pounded chicken or mutton is used in momos. Mantou is comparatively fluffier than Manti dumplings because of the leavening agents used. 
Mantou is prepared by mixing cool milk, wheat flour, little salt and sugar, yeast and a little cooking oil. Following ingredients are nicely kneaded with water. We let the kneaded dough rise. Then we make smooth balls out of the dough and let the shaped balls rise as well, before steaming it. If you are adding a filling of pounded beef or pork or lamb, it should be at this point. (You would have made a Baozi by then). Mantou, filled or unfilled, is enjoyed all over South East Asia. Mantou is generally served with soups and tea in China. In Malaysia and Singapore, crab dip is becoming a popular accompaniment to Mantou.
Mantou, in its originality, is so plain that it renders itself with ease for adaptation. Mandarin rolls/Chinese flower rolls are a dessert version of Mantou. They are eaten with sweetened condensed milk. There is also a custard-filled steam bun called Nai Huang Bao. Another Mantou that is popular in China is Xiaolongbao. It is also called Soup dumpling by Westerners. It is very popular in and around Shanghai. A stock of bone soup of pork or any fatty meat is made into gelatinous blocks. These blocks are cut into pieces and stuffed inside Mantou balls before steaming. Heating melts the gelatinous stock and sends the juice into mouths when the bun is bitten. A dish from Cantonese region called Cha Siu Bao, is made by filling Mantou with barbecued pork. Cha Siu Bao is made in both baked and steamed forms.


3. Manju and Mandu: Korea, having long influenced by Northern Chinese and Turkic tribes, invented its version of Mantou, called Mandu. Mandu can be baked, fried, steamed or boiled. We can find all sorts of Mandu, but Korean cuisine enthusiasts would who love their Kimchi, would love Kimchi Mandu. 
Japan was introduced to Mantou, where it became Manju, by their interactions with Chinese in medieval times. Some believe that Japan and Korea were introduced to Mantou, as Manti by Mongolian invaders too. Japanese love their red bean paste and it reflects in their Manju. Mizu Manju, is one of the most popular types of Manju in Japan. The bun exterior is made up of Kuzu starch and filling is usually sweet red bean paste. In the absence of Kuzu starch, corn starch can be used. 


We can see how these simple sweet buns render them to amazing adaptability and in turn, creates more delicious snacks in the process. 

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