The River Neva glitters in the summer sun, and Russian girls teeter past on heels so high they might as well be circus stilts. It is only a short walk from the Hermitage Museum, site of the Tsars’ art treasures, to a pokey restaurant on the Fotanka river embankment that specialises in “dumplings of [the] people of the world.” I sidle up to the counter and order a bunch from the menu – St Petersburg style, and Georgian style, and what’s this, Siberian? The waitresses chatter back at me, unaware that my Russian only extends to a couple of imperative verbs and whatever I am reading directly off the board.
When the food arrives, it is often only the sauce that differs. Pelmeni in a European style are served with dill and sour cream, or a little zing of onion. But pelmeni from Siberia are served with a soy-sauce dip. They have become “Chinese”. The name changes to manti when they reach China’s Muslim frontier, and the filling changes to mutton. They are fried in China, where they become jiaozi (the Russian word for which, gedza, seems to derive from the Japanese pronunciation, gyōza).
The left-to-right progression of the menu at Pelmenya reflects that of the Euro-centric, or rather, Russo-centric imagination, compounded by the natural assumption of European languages that things on a page will start at the left (west) and progress to the right (east). One might just as easily read the menu backwards, and imagine that the dumpling started in Asia, particularly in Siberia where they are still often prepared as autumn foods, stored outside in sub-zero temperatures.
In fact, however, the first dumplings are found in central Asia. They migrated both east and west. Neither of the far ends of the Silk Road, or the Dumpling Drive, or whatever you want to call it, has a real claim of being the originator of the recipe.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.