The History Of Mantou, The Steamed Chinese Bun
Image Credit: Istock, Mantou are light and fluffy, and make the ideal side to go with the more robust flavours of Chinese food.

Plain Chinese steamed buns without any filling, mantou are made with four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, and water. They are a staple in Northern China and may be consumed on their own or as an accompaniment to other dishes. Mantou are light and fluffy, and make the ideal side to go with the more robust flavours of Chinese food.

The mantou appeared during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) in East China. Chinese legend has it that the word ‘mantou’ means ‘barbarian’s head’. The story goes that Chancellor Zhuge Liang, a well-known regent and military strategist, needed to cross the Lu River, which had big, stormy waves. The locals told him that to pacify the river, he had to sacrifice 50 barbarian’s heads and throw them into it. Zhuge Liang didn’t want to lose his men, and so he ordered them to kill livestock, and fill their meat into a flour dough and shape it like human heads. These buns were thrown into the river. After successfully crossing the river, he decided to name the bun barbarian’s head, and so mantou were born. 

The mantou’s etymology is unusual. Historically, Chinese foods were named either for their major ingredients, or poetically to stimulate the appetite. “Barbarian head” fits neither category and, according to some scholars, this suggests that the Chinese characters represented a food name borrowed from another language. A more plausible story about the origins of mantou may be related to ‘Soup for the Qan’, a medicinal cookbook written by Uighur imperial doctor Hu Sihui for the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279-1368) Mongol emperor that he served. The book mentions a dumpling-like dish similar to mantou. Early mantous had fillings, similar to modern-day baos.

During the thirteenth century, the conquering Khans of the Yuan Dynasty carried the stuffed buns with them around the empire as an easy-to-cook meal. 

Most countries, especially those in Asia, have their own versions of the steamed bun. Korea has mandu (which refers to both stuffed and unstuffed buns) and Japan the manju. Mongolia has both filled buuz and unfilled mantuun buuz, which it considers a national cuisine, but it has been estimated that these descended from the Chinese stuffed bao and mantou, respectively. Tibetans and Nepalese people eat stuffed momos, a word that also originated in China’s Jiangnan region (momomeans unstuffed bun). Vietnam makes banh bao, the Phillipines the siyopaw and Thailand the salopao.

However, the mantou variations have no native meanings in these languages, suggesting that despite these countries claiming mantou as their own, its origins lie elsewhere and are likely tied to the Uighurs in China, who have a traditional dish called mantau, which means ‘bread prepared in steam’ in their native language. Ultimately, the mantou’s origins remain a sort of mystery. However, despite its hazy history, the idea of the steamed bun connects countries and cultures.