Chinese Steamed Buns (Mantou)

The history of Mantou or steamed bun in China goes back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 BC). At that time, people was already steaming and eating fermented flour dough, and called it Yi Food. After the Han Dynasty, with the popularization of stone mill, people started grinding wheat flour. And steamed flour-based food also became popular among the Yellow River basin. In the book Shiwu Ganzhu, it recorded that King Zhaoxiang of Qin made baked flatbread. Xiao Zixian wrote in the Book of Southern Qi that the imperial court required to use Mianqi Bread during the worship ceremony, that is “to put yeast into the dough to make it become light and fluffy,” It is said that Mianqi Bread is the earliest known steamed bun in Chinese history. Thus, steamed buns were incipiently used during worship ceremonies.

Do you know who invented steamed bun? According to the book Seven Categories Issued Draft by Ming Dynasty scholar Lang Ying, Mantou’s original name was Barbaric Head. During the Three Kingdom Period, barbarians used human head to worship god. Chancellor Zhuge Liang went on a battle to suppress against Southern Barbarians and won. On his way back, he and his army have to cross the Lu River, which had stormy waves. The locals told them that using human head as sacrifice was the only way to cross the river. Zhuge Liang could not bear to kill innocent people, therefore he ordered his soldiers to put beef and lamb into flour dough and steamed it, and then threw it into the river. Since it was a fake head to fool the river god, it was named Cheat Head. Another saying was it was a replacement of the barbarians’ head, so it was called Barbaric Head.

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