Our group project started pretty innocently, we decided to study dumplings for the sole purpose of eating as an assignment and promptly booked ourselves a table at Ziggy’s House of Noms to start researching. All it took was a simple menu item that would change the course of our project forever… the Cheeseburger McDumpling.
Most people probably haven’t thought much about the origin and traditions of the humble dumpling, we certainly hadn’t. A lot of different cuisines boast a version of the dumpling, filling packaged within pastry. From Spanish empanadas, Italian tortellini, Polish pierogies and Swedish kroppkakor, they all resemble the same idea as Asian dumplings.
Whilst there are a few theories on the creation of Jiaozi (traditional Chinese dumplings) the most popular one puts the first dumplings way back in AD 25-220 during the Han dynasty, where they were first made by Zhang Zhongjing, a practitioner of medicine. His dumplings were referred to as ‘tender ears’, because of the shape and the warm soup and herbs in the dumplings were thought to help treat frostbitten ears of the poor during winter.
Dumplings are now associated with prosperity, traditionally eaten around Chinese New Year, sometimes a coin will be put in a dumpling for a lucky individual to find. They are a dish dumplings served year round, for breakfast, lunch and dinner with many people adapting the recipe to create a modern version.
We initially went to the Wollongong dumpling and tea house, Ziggy’s House of Nomms. We chose a variety of things off the menu, including the Cheeseburger McDumpling. As soon as we saw it we were curious, laughing at the bizarre concept of a cheeseburger dumpling. We weren’t sure what to expect. The cheeseburger dumplings were a pleasant surprise, they tasted great, just like a cheeseburger. The flavours definitely didn’t resemble what we thought of as Asian dumplings though, especially considering the side of tomato sauce and mustard in place of the traditional soy sauce. We’d never experienced fusion dumplings before and as a result began thinking about how something as traditional as a dumpling had been completely westernized and turned into something that we are completely familiar with: the cheeseburger. Was this Western-tasting dumpling still Asian? Thus began our quest of creating very inauthentic dumplings.
Our next step was to make our own dumplings. One recipe ran more true to the traditional dumplings, made with pork and cabbage. For our fusion dumplings we walked down the supermarket aisles and picked out the first things we wanted to turn into a dumpling.
Watch our shopping, cooking and eating experience below:
Dumpling wrappers are quite versatile, they have a flavour however they accommodate not only sweet and savoury but also flavours from different cuisines. We were pleasantly surprised by how all flavours were enabled by the dumpling wrapper, it worked as a medium to accommodate the consumption of small amounts of a specific dish. We found that they are a very practical food medium as it is easy to manage portion size (in theory) and store for later consumption. Dumpling wrappers are essentially made of flour and water rolled flat into a disc that can be manipulated to hold small portions of another food. This makes it extremely versatile to work with and can be altered to suit the tastes of an individual. Dumplings are so dispersed across Asia but vary quite significantly from one town to the next, expressing the local culture of each community. In this way the dumpling can be seen as a communication technology for expressing a local culture. “Food tells us something about a culture’s approach to life. In the end, we can say that food functions symbolically as a communicative practice by which we create, manage and share meanings with others. Understanding culture, habits, rituals and tradition can be explored through food and the way others perceive it.” (Stajcic, 2013)
“Understanding a culture through food is an interesting process because once a person starts asking these questions, such as how something is made, what ingredients are in it, or why it is called a certain way, the answers obtained go beyond culinary learning. (Stajcic, 2013) We aimed to better explore a culture through it’s food; specifically the dumpling. The further we explored dumplings, something we’d only ever considered a delicious stuffed pastry, the more we learnt about the culture and tradition behind the dish. The process of buying, making, cooking and eating dumplings caused us to question how culture is shared through food. Subsequently, we were interested in the history of the dumpling, why they’re eaten and the way in which the fusion of traditional Chinese dumplings with Western food is evolving. In this sense, dumplings become a medium representative of aspects of local Chinese culture.
Our process of creating dumplings was inauthentic in the sense that we had little previous knowledge of how to make dumplings. The way we folded, cooked and experimented with fillings were no doubt different from the traditional sense. But it is hard to determine where to draw the line with traditional cooking, is it food, the recipe, the methods used to prepare the meal or even the cultural background of the individual. We picked a traditional recipe to cook however our cooking utensils were very much from our own culture, which could lessen the authenticity of the traditional meal. It has been suggested that digital culture, pop culture and tourism have a major effect on the social construction of cultural authenticity since the erosion of of traditional values (Kwon, 2012). “Public awareness of culture is constantly reconstructed through interaction between popular culture and tourism, and it can be considered to be the substance of cultural authenticity in postmodern era” (Kwon, 2012). The erosion of traditional values suggests that tradition or in this case traditional cuisine can no longer be invented, with the world so interconnected it is impossible to build on tradition and as a result fusion food is created. “Globalization has not necessarily homogenized all cultural differences nor erased the salience of cultural labels. Quite the contrary; it grows the franchise. In the global economy of consumption, the brand equity of sushi as Japanese cultural property adds to the prestige of both the country and the cuisine. Certainly, the presentation and ingredients or forms of sushi vary from country to country, but it is still seen as something very distinctive.” (Stajcic, 2013)
With the Cheeseburger McDumpling from Ziggy’s House of Nomms and the hybrids we created (Mac’n’Cheese’, Mi Goreng, Kit Kat, Wagon Wheel) there is the question of authenticity and appropriation of a dish that is heavily embedded in tradition. However, just because a dish evolves and is found in one form or another in restaurants across the globe does not mean it has lost its status as authentic Chinese cultural property. The cultural meaning of dumplings remain the same even if the medium is slightly different.
Through our study we have found that dumplings are a food platform, accommodating local expression whether traditional or otherwise. They are distinctively Asian, regardless of how the filling is changed, people will still associate the dish with Asia. The concept of cultural authenticity is constantly being re-defined by pop culture and through the tourism industry, with globalization it has become impossible to invent traditional cuisine leading to a fusion of different cultural dishes.
By Jarrah Bowley and Meg Ensor
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