The Secret Trade of Dumplings

The Secret Trade of Dumplings

Somewhere outside Dongdaemun History & Culture Park …

I decided to go on an excursion with some friends to Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) and the Russian-speaking neighborhood of Seoul in Guanghuidong (exit 5, 7, 8 of Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station). It is commonly believed that Korea is a homogeneous country, but a closer look reveals several pockets of Filipino (Hyehwadong & Dongsungdong in Jongno), Chinese (Chinatown in Incheon & Seongsudong near Konkuk University) and Central Asian (Guanghuidong) communities where you can find the intercultural influences tracing back to the history of Korean migration.

{Pictured below: Building D of DDP & a color-coordinated friend posing on the 2nd floor}

Korean diaspora can be found on just about every continent of the world and it is reflective in unique Kyopo* cuisines that have been developed using age-old recipes with the indigenous ingredients readily available to the Koreans wherever they settled. As Koreans travelled back and forth, other ethnic groups and the culture of that region followed, which has resulted in these expat districts in and around Seoul—hosting an explosive blend of flavors from countries abroad with a Korean slant to it.

{Pictured below: 3D printers stamping out minions and other figurines}

So after perusing the DDP design shops, 3D printers and virtual reality displays (Building D, 1st & 2nd floors), we ventured out to hunt for our lunch beyond the high-rise wholesale fashion outlets and found ourselves surrounded by signs written in Russian characters. We landed in a particular alley where there were 3-4 restaurants all called “Sarmarkand,” but all with different variations in spelling.

The Sarmakand restaurant we ended up at was decorated with colorful cushions and the interior walls were covered to the ceiling with murals of hand-painted angelic figures (a humbler version of the Sistine Chapel). We ordered three different types of dumpling dishes (pelmeni, manti, and … I can’t remember the name of the last one, but it was a meat-filled pastry deep-fried to a crisp), along with a cold meat salad (that tastes a lot like a spicy jangjorim—a Korean soy sauce-marinated braised beef side dish) and a popular pastry puff (somsa) that was recommended by the waitress. She graciously gave us a complimentary side dish of Korean-style carrot salad—which is not really Korean, but uniquely Central Asian created by the Koryo** people.

{Pictured below: pelmeni}

History of the Koryo People

Sarmarkand (aka Samarqand, Sarmacand or Samrikand) is the name of a romantic blue-domed, arabesque-tiled city in Uzbekistan with a history dating back to 1500 BC. The history of Korean migrants to the former Soviet Union is long and painful. Although Korean emigration there occurred as early as the latter half of AD 1800s, anti-Korean laws were enacted in 1907 and forced deportation began in 1937 sending those with Korean roots away from the Capital to the outer central Asian regions (e.g. Uzebekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, etc.)—mainly due to the Soviet government suspicion that the Korean descendants were collaborating with the Japanese empire as spies.

{Pictured below: cold meat salad}

My Dumpling Trade Theory

Sarmarkand, as a city strategically located along “the silk road,” was once a hot trading mecca of goods as well as a mixing pot of cultures. Records as early as 206 BC-AD 220 from the Chinese Han Dynasty speak of the Sogdian merchants from this region of Sarmakand, which also coincides in the same time period with the first record of dumplings (which has been called by different names even in the same Chinese language throughout the centuries). Dumplings, in their varied tastes and forms, are found in cuisines now all over the world—spreading across regions, indiscriminately, east to west. How did the idea of stuffing ground meat, spices and other fillings in rolled out dough pop up around the globe?

{Pictured below: spiced minced meat and onion filling of manti–dish also featured in the heading–served with sour cream}

Albeit food historians claim that dumplings arose independently across geographic expanses, with all the cross-cultural exchange occurring at the time, I remain a skeptic. I have my own theory that dumplings were secretly traded across Asia and even into Greece and Rome. Chinese dumplings originated as a cure for frostbite, but also allowed travelling merchants through Northern and Central Asia to have hearty meat-filled meals that were compact enough to fit in their knapsacks. Not implying at all that they were illicitly smuggled beyond borders, but perhaps, locals along the trade routes inadvertently caught a whiff, a glimpse—maybe even a taste—of the wrap-covered meatballs being stowed by these merchants. If not, perhaps more forceful and oppressive exchanges between cultures carried this recipe across territorial boundaries.

{Pictured below: our appetizer dish—basically a deep-fried puff pastry with a spiced meat patty inside}

There is no doubt that the dumpling first arose in the Chinese culture and there are different folktales and written records to back these facts. I am, however, convinced that the interwoven histories of the Chinese Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 9); Iranian Sogdian merchants who were based in Sarkamand (206 BC-AD 220); and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250-125 BC) had some part in spreading the dumpling renaissance. The ancient writings from the Han Dynasty mentioning their trade with Sogdian merchants implicates that dumplings just might have been part of their exchanges.

Taking advantage of the fast horses of the time, the Xiongnu (better known as the Asiatic Huns or remember in Mulan, this is the group the Chinese were fighting against)—whose territory expanded from Mongolia, western Manchuria, Xinjiang, East Kazakhstan, East Kyrgystan, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu—used their military prowess, rampaging and forcing the Han Kingdom to tribute silk, clothes, food, and wine (200 BC). I, personally, believe that a variation of Chinese dumplings could have been part of the tributes to keep these nomadic bullies at bay. The Huns, then, crushed other nomadic tribes, like the Yuezhi who fled west, theoretically with dumplings in stow, and resettled in—modern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—what was then Greco-Bactria territory (256-125 BC). Hypothetically, the Han could have passed the dumplings to the Huns who gave it to the Yuezhi who took them in a frenzy straight to the Greeks. Perhaps, if the Sogdian merchants didn’t get to the Romans first through trade channels, the Roman colonization of Greece hypothetically could have picked up on the dumpling idea and carried it further west—as the decisive battle of Corinth (146 BC) that merged Roman and Greek history just so happens to fall within the same time period.

{Pictured below: somsa, savory meat-filled pastry}

Even though the first written records of Italian dumplings—gnocchi, tortellini, capelletti, and ravioli may not have come until several centuries later in the AD 16th-17th Century, (considering Italy itself wasn’t founded until AD 1861) it wouldn’t surprise me if we dug through time and found secret hidden dumpling recipes from Roman family kitchens dating before that time. Variations of the recipe have appeared in different regions using the type of flour and filling locally available and brought to them by the trade of the time, but the premise of the dumpling idea is one in the same.


{Speaking of family kitchens and dumplings, here is the Korean mandu which my family makes for New Year’s Day celebrations.}


So, this is all my own speculation … but I believe the Central Asians (from the Sognian merchants to the Xiongnu warriors) of this region played a huge role in bringing commonality among a diverse set of people—not necessarily through ideologies and the unyielding sword, but through an innocent piece of dough with a secret filling. That is the beauty of food and culture. Who truly knows if these soldiers and refugees carried dumplings for energy boosts in their saddles or if the people they influenced tried to recreate memories of what they saw these nomads eating along their journey? All I am saying is there is a possibility that these cultures may have passed on the idea of hiding minced meat and vegetables inside doughy wraps as they traversed through the land—and it provided something, minor as it may seem, that they could share in common.

So maybe the Korean-Central Asians (Koryos) were in the wrong time period to be directly involved in the dumpling trade; but, they definitely played a part internationalizing the love of this cuisine, incorporating the carrot salad and bringing the tasty, spiced Central Asian version of dumplings to the back alleys of Dongdaemun for Seoulites to experience and enjoy.

*Kyopo: Koreans or those with Korean heritage living abroad, outside of Korea
**Koryo: Kyopos in/from Russia and Central Asia (former Soviet Union)


Heading back to Seoul tomorrow! Photos coming soon of what I ate in Jindo (an agricultural fishing island village in the rural outskirt of S Korea)~


More reading on dumplings:


More info and recipe for carrot salad:



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