Monday, October 29, 2007

Pau Buns, and a Romp through History

Thanks to old school buddy and fellow-blogger Pooja Sharma, I have come to realise what an utter dolt I am. My post on the Pau bun elicited the following comment from her:
surprised to find that there are paus in singapore, and that little detail about them having both yeast and baking powder.
and here I thought it was only maharashtrians who were crazy abt it!

All this while I had taken it as given that the origins of the Pau lay in China. Wikipedia claims the Baozi was invented by the military strategist Zhuge Liang circa 2nd Century AD.

By highlighting its phonetic similarity with an Indian bread, Pooja left me wondering how I could have missed such a blindingly obvious possibility. Namely, that there's more to the Pau story than just blithely attributing it to China. And on reflection, several considerations did occur to make me reconsider this attribution.

Technical ones, for a start. As mentioned, Baozi are made with both yeast and baking powder. The use of yeast as a leavening agent originated in Egypt, at least 5000 years ago. It spread across the Western world; Romans, Jews, medieval Europeans all adopted bread as their staple source of cereal. A whole lot of material on the topic is available on the net, notably here, here and here. But strangely, none of these articles I saw carried any mention of yeast being used in China.

Baking powder is much, much more recent (and occidental) in origin. Some experiments date back to the early 19th century, but it was only in 1843 that Alfred Bird succeeded in developing the substance in its modern form. Clearly then, neither yeast nor baking powder were traditionally in use in China. So where did the Baozi come from?

That's when etymology, the second consideration, kicks in. All my life I have been accustomed to referring to bread as 'Pau-ruti'. In my native Bangla, it is a generic term denoting leavened bread of all sorts. In the western part of India, 'Pao' or 'Pav' means both bread in general, as well as a specific kind of bread, a very soft white segmented loaf with a thin, golden crust. In virtually no other part of India do we come across this word or its variations. In Hindi, bread is known as Double Roti.

The key lies in the Portuguese connection. 'Panis', the Latin for bread, finds reflection in several European languages, notably French ('Pain'), Italian ('Pane'), Spanish ('Pan') and, crucially, the Portuguese 'Pão'. Indeed, the Pao of western India is widely acknowledged to be a legacy of Portuguese settlers of Goa and the Konkan coast. Moreover, a sizeable population of Portuguese and their descendants existed and still exist in and around Calcutta. There's every reason to believe they were responsible for introducing into Bengali culture both the bread and the term.

What about China? Nestorian Christianity reached its shores for certain by the 7th Century AD. In 1271, Kublai Khan sent word to the Pope through Marco Polo asking for a hundred European teachers of science and religion sent to China; this led to the advent of the Franciscans. More interestingly, in 1552 the Jesuit St Francis Xavier came to the island of Shangchuan, but died there before he could reach the mainland. (His body was later shipped to Goa.) This paved the way for the Jesuits, who established a strong presence there in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Does this mean the Baozi also came to China through the Portuguese, like the Japanese Tempura? Not really. These indications are too tenuous. Moreover, Wikipedia mentions that the term 'Baozi' to denote filled buns found favour during the Song Dynasty, (960-1279 AD) prior to the reign of Kublai Khan. (About Zhuge Liang and his invention, we'll come to it later.)

At the same time, the connections cannot be wished away entirely. Perhaps yeast and baking powder were later innovations, and the proto-Baozi steamed stuffed bun predates them by centuries. In which case, how did the name come about?

A net search suggested an interesting possibility. I came across a scholarly article on the Salar people and their dramatic traditions (enthusiastic readers may find it here and here). The Salar are a Turkic-speaking community living in eastern Qinghai, who claim their ancestors migrated from Samarkand in the 13th century. A significant part of their cultural traditions, notably a type of play known as Döye Oyna, is associated with this migration.

One line of the play goes: 'In Samarkand, our camel ate hard bread and stuffed dumplings. Our camel shits walnuts after eating dates, stuffed dumplings, and fried bread.' [p. 294, or page 8 of the PDF document] Of interest to us are the translated food terms inserted parenthetically in the original - fried bread, referred to as 'Sanzi' in the Salar language; and stuffed dumplings, called 'Baozi' in Chinese and 'Bozi' in Salar.

This leads to two related conjectures: One, that stuffed dumpling of a type similar to the Baozi was popular in Samarkand; and two, that the term 'Bozi' entered the Salar language prior to the migration. In which case, could it be that the Baozi came to China via Samarkand? Or at least the word 'Baozi'? Maybe at a later stage it associated with local steamed-bun traditions to yield the Baozi as it is known today?

The Wikipedia article on the Mantou offers further clues in support of this contention. As mentioned before, the term 'Baozi' gained popularity during the Song Dynasty. Prior to it, 'Mantou' was used throughout China to denote both filled and unfilled buns. Moreover, its usage is restricted to northern China only. Southern China follows the practice of referring to both filled and unfilled buns as 'Mantou'. These facts are entirely consistent with the hypothesis that the term 'Baozi' was introduced to China from the north, probably through ethnic migration.

The article also mentions that Zhuge Liang is credited with inventing Mantou rather than Baozi stricto sensu. It suggests the word 'Mantou' arose out of certain legendary associations; interested readers may read it up for themselves.

Ironically, while our conjecture says the Baozi came to China from the west, the indigenous Chinese Mantou has spread all over Asia, including Korea, Japan, and Central Asia (Turkey, Afghanistan and so on). Even the cuisine of Uzbekistan, home to Samarkand and Bukhara, features steamed, filled, unleavened dumplings called Manty.

And finally, the 'Pau' of Malaysia and Singapore is phonetically more proximate than the Chinese 'Bao' to variants of the Latin 'Pan-', particularly the Portuguese '
Pão'. It is also a fact that the Portuguese had a significant presence there for a long time; in 1511 it conquered Malacca and held on to it till 1641.

Colonisation was inevitably followed by cultural, even culinary interchanges. This did not happen in a straightforward west-to-east manner, as one would have thought. As this very interesting article on Goan cuisine points out:
Goan food today is a fusion of many cuisines, and in many ways it brought the colonizer and the colonized closer. Goan food drew on different influences - Arab, Konkan, Malabar, Malaysian, Portuguese, Brazilian, French, African and even Chinese.
It also claims the Goan dessert Bebinca is a modified version of the Bibingka of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

So do we have another conjecture now, that the Baozi came to the Straits from China, but subsequent interaction with the Portuguese and other Europeans had its name purified to the more pristine Pau? Maybe, maybe not. In either case, the range of possibilities we explored in this post only serves to emphasise the complexities involved in the dynamics of cultural, and culinary, transmission and assimilation.


the_unexamined_life said...

the range of possibilities we explored in this post only serves to emphasise the complexities involved in the dynamics of cultural, and culinary, transmission and assimilation.

And why did you forget digestion?

Good post. Enjoyed it thoroughly.


Amit Walambe said...

I must admire the work you've put in. And the post itself was very interesting.
- Amit

ys said...

am here only to third the first two admirers :)

Arvind said...

Indeed! We have been given food for thought.

Gamesmaster G9 said...

I recall having eaten these pau bun thingies in Singapore. They were placed in a steamer at the buffet table, and I found them nice, albeit a bit bland.

The corollary to this is that I also had a bowl of soup during the same meal, until a helpful old lady pointed out that what I thought was soup was actually gravy for the dumplings.

Pooja Sharma said...

wah! little did i realise that a little comment will send you on a research trip... very interesting post, though you lost me midway. i have an appetite... but not for history :-D

Ayan Roy said...

Simply awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed it, since I too am a history lover. Loved the way you presented your research, just for a piece of 'pao' :-)
I think you'll get your PhD pretty fast!


Soumyasree Chakraborty said...

This is what you can call Unity in diversity I guess. Enjoyed reading the journey of Portugese Pao to Mumbai-an Pau to Delhite Double Roti ti Kolkattai Pau-Ruti..