After a night spent shivering together in a Mongolian ger, my new German friends and I went out for some proper urban Mongolian food at Khan Buuz, a fast food joint with as great a reputation for authenticity as a fast food joint can command. We met in Mongolia going opposite directions on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and all of us had largely subsisted on a diet of instant noodles and instant coffee before stoping in Ulan Bator.
As we perused a battered English-language menu, Joel asked me, “What’s a dumpling?”
Though I knew Germany had its own version of boiled meat-stuffed dough, I couldn’t remember its name. So I replied with a seemingly absurd comparison that had no likely place in reality, but might communicate the idea, “It’s like Asian ravioli.”
As I learned later, this idea was nearly correct, but that didn’t matter as our food arrived. After our night in the desert, the plates of calorie-laden food in front of us commanded our full attention. That our journey traveled across the path of the dumpling’s diaspora from its birthplace in China to its home as a European staple was wholly inconsequential.
Most folks, myself included, do not choose to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad for its culinary offerings, but despite them, feasting on scenery, culture, and history instead. I assumed that the further I got from China, the more dire and dismal the food would become, and I’d gorge on a destination with my eyes, ears, and mind rather than my mouth.
Yet as I crossed borders and deserts and tundras, I realized I’d overlooked that these train tracks follow a series of ancient trade and war routes, those points of cultural interaction that historically act as distributors of ideas, technology, and goods—all great things for food. Eating across the Trans-Mongolian portion of the railroad may just be a way to taste the evolution of one of the world’s most popular foods from its origins and on.
Like many great and ancient things, the dumpling’s origin remains mysterious. Written evidence of the Chinese dumpling, or jiaozi, dates back to around 500 AD, with an oral history stretching back even further. As the story goes, the wonton developed during the Han Dynasty got its shape from the legend of Pan Gu, who ended the chaos of the universe by distilling its forces into two half-egg shapes: land and sky. More conventional wisdom suggests that doctors developed the dumpling as a way to make bitter medicinal herbs more palatable. By wrapping the herbs in a thin flour dough and serving the pouches in a savory broth, the ill could ingest their medicines with ease.
With time, the dumpling became a mainstream food eaten at the dinner table served with a variety of fillings both in and out of broth. During the Ming dynasty, the dumpling received special standing as a particularly lucky food, as it shared its shape and name with the currency of the time. Perhaps this reputation was supported by association with a traditional medicinal role. Today, the association with money and luck prevails, and contemporary Chinese eat jiaozi with special significance during the New Year’s celebrations.
Jiaozi spread beyond China’s borders as explorers and conquerors came in and as merchants traveled out along the silk road. Mongolian invaders adopted the dumpling with the taking of northern China by Genghis Khan, if wandering nomads had not discovered them first as a way to make tough meats more palatable. Marco Polo, who in the 1270’s gained the confidance of Khan’s son Kublai in Beijing, is said to have described the dumpling as a stuffed noodle, and provided Italians with the inspiration for ravioli.
Buuz, the Mongolian dumpling, adapts the delicate Chinese jiaozi to a harsher climate and nomadic lifestyle, while the Mongolian people spread the concept to areas as far as Korea and Hungary by horseback. Buuz outsize jiaozi significantly, with their thicker dough and larger mass recalling hand pies. Though the buuz travelers encounter today are tasty morsels of delicate dough encapsulating tender, onion and garlic-flavored meat, historically buuz were simply a means of survival. Their thick dough protected mutton, beef, and other available animal proteins from pests and the handy shape meant calories could be easily frozen and transported across distances during winter. Today you can find pan-fried buuz (khuushuur) and a smaller version of buuz called bansh across Ulan Bator.
The potential hardiness of the dumpling, as exemplified by Mongolian buuz, proved their suitability for a Siberian climate. However, some believe the food may made its way to Russian territories directly from China without Mongolian intervention, given the historical inclusion of black pepper in the regional dumpling adaptation. Yet with Ivan the Terrible’s 1555 invasions into Mongol-held Siberian territories and the influence of Polo-inspired culinary cultures from the west, the dumpling’s expansion into Russia has many possible origins. In practice, pelmeni provided a way for those in Siberia to preserve meats throughout the winter. By wrapping small pieces of seasoned meats and vegetables in dough and freezing them outside, Russians who had ventured east were able to boil up filling meals quickly during long and cold winters. This version of the dumpling traveled west to European Russia, along with game meats and blini—Russian buckwheat pancakes. Today, pelmeni are available across the country, with fast food chains offering dumplings stamped with a smiley-face and high-end restaurants getting creative with fillings.
As the dumpling concept traveled west, the habit of eating meat-filled pieces of dough with sour cream traveled east along the same Trans-Siberian route. Whereas sour cream accompanied pelmeni from the start, the practice traveled to Mongolia more recently. Now, you’ll often find sour cream served alongside the more traditional pickles in Mongolia. While the Chinese have held off the Nestle-backed tide of dairy products for quite sometime, the resistance weakens. Sales of ice cream and cow’s milk have soared in China and across Asia in recent years. Perhaps jiaozi with a side of sour cream is not far behind.