Fusion, Assimilation, or Just a Good Idea?
Chinese Curry Puffs
Curry puffs (咖哩餃 gali jiao in Chinese, literally “curry dumpling”) is my go-to potluck dish. I first learned how to make them in a home economics class at Taipei First Girls High School, along with other staple “Chinese snacks,” such as sesame balls, egg tarts, and turnip cakes. Our teacher repeatedly stressed to her pupils that such treats are crowd-pleasers at home and abroad, ideal for us, future all-around careerwomen-housewives, to easily showcase our “Chinese cooking techniques.” As it turns out, she was right. Friends and colleagues love my curry puffs. However, few see them as “Chinese.” British colleagues congratulated me for “making excellent Cornish pasties.” A Filipina friend asked, “Where did you learn to make empanadas?”
The curry puff is a culinary chimera. Often appearing in different sizes and under different names, these half-moon-shaped snacks are defined by a thick, savory curry filling in a flaky and crispy pastry shell. And although curry puffs are now a dim sum staple in Hong Kong and can be found in bakeries across the Sinophone world, they have numerous cousins throughout maritime Southeast Asia.
In the Malay Peninsula, where curry puffs were said to be invented in the 1800s, it is known as epok-epok, a deep-fried pasty filled with sardines or potatoes and flavored with spices. Chinese migrants modified the dish with different fillings (chicken, potato, boiled egg) and a flaky shortcrust shell. This version, still very popular in Malaysia and Singapore, is commonly called kalee pap or karipap, reflecting the sounds of “curry” (kalee, kari, 咖哩) and “pop, puff” (pap, 卜) in the southern Fujian dialect. Adapting certain elements of karipap, Indians also devised their version of curry puffs by using the shortcrust dough while maintaining the triangular shape of a samosa. By the early 20th century, curry puffs had become popular in Malaysia and Singapore as both a quick bite at the market and a fancy party item in restaurants.
One could find other variations across Southeast Asia thatbecame popular around the same time; for example, Indonesian pastel, Myanmar tha mon, and Thai karipap. Some were deep-fried and others baked. They come with different fillings (tinned sardines or tuna, vegetables, beef, duck, rice vermicelli) and various spice combinations (curry powder is not always required).
The true origins of the puff are obscure.
Where did the curry puff come from? Is it Chinese? Indian? British? Or Iberian? Although most of today’s recipes claim certain national or regional authenticity of their versions, the true origins of the puff are obscure. Instead of tracing which one came first, it might be more productive to see these various curry puffs as a transcultural and fusion creation of the European empires’ Asian subjects. The technique of mixing and folding flour and shortening to create a light, layered crust might have been inspired by the Cornish pasty. The curry-flavored potato fillings might come from Indian samosas. While the semicircular shape is sometimes attributed to empanadas, regional Muslims might see it as the Islam symbol of the crescent, and for Chinese sojourners the shape of the familiar dumpling (jiao). Who can claim the idea of wrapping meat and vegetables in fried dough as their original idea? And who doesn’t enjoy the hot filling oozing out from a freshly cooked crispy pastry?
The “Chinese” curry puffs I learned to make as a 16-year-old student are both authentic (whatever that means) and not. The conventional version of a modern Chinese curry puff is believed to first appear in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the early 20th century. Under British control since the 1840s, Hong Kong and Shanghai were not only the European gateway to China but also labs for the Chinese to explore and experiment with modernity. One could speculate that overseas Chinese sojourners or British colonial personnel introduced karipap to China, but it could also be a spontaneous creation by local cooks who were exposed to curry powder and European turnovers.
Hong Kong’s baked curry puffs look similar to their Malay cousins, but the technique of making the crispy shell is different: instead of butter-based shortcrust pastry dough, a traditional Chinese lard-based dough called supi (酥皮, flaky skin) that requires repeatedly rolling and folding two types of dough is used (as shown in the recipe below). They are much smaller and served as dim sum in teahouses. Instead of chicken, beef, eggs, or vegetable filling popular in Southeast Asia, where many people follow halal or Hindu dietary rules, ground pork with minced onion became the most common puff filling among the Chinese.
There are simply too many possible routes of transmission to say for sure who learned from whom.
Such alterations may have resulted from the meat-consumption preference in China at the time. In Shanghai, Lao Da Chang (est. 1937), the favorite bakery of novelist Eileen Chang, suggests that the pathways of curry puffs to China may be multiple. Its signature curry puffs are triangular with beef filling, closely resembling the version invented by Indian immigrants in Southeast Asia. There are simply too many possible routes of transmission, imitation, adaptation, and reinvention to say for sure who learned from whom.
“How can I make these little guys at home?” a friend asked after seeing my photo of curry puffs on social media. Realizing that making supi skin from scratch is hard to explain and too painstaking, I went searching online for easier alternatives and discovered that frozen puff pastry sheets have been recommended to home cooks as a convenient shortcut. The same shortcut can be found in recent recipes of Malaysian and Indian curry puffs, too. The evolution of curry puffs continues . . .
Gali jiao (Curry Puffs) (makes 20)
Adapted from Huang Su-Huei, Chinese Snacks, rev. ed. (Taipei: Wei-Chuan Publishing Co. Ltd., 1985), p. 25
For the Filling:
1 lb. ground pork
1.5 cups minced onion
3 tablespoons curry powder
1.5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
¾ cup water
1.5 tablespoons cornstarch
1.5 tablespoons water
For the Shell:
2 cups flour
5 tablespoons lard
10 tablespoons water
¼ tablespoons salt
1 cup flour
5 tablespoons lard
1 beaten egg yolk
Filling: Heat the wok, then add 4 tablespoons of oil. Stir-fry onion until fragrant, then add curry powder and stir lightly. Add ground pork and stir until cooked. Add mixture (a) and bring to a boil. Add mixture (b) to thicken and stir. Remove from the stove and let cool.
Shell: Two separate doughs will be prepared: Dough A and Dough B.
Mix the ingredients together to make a smooth dough A. Knead briefly until very smooth. Let stand for 20 minutes, then roll into a baton-like roll and cut it into 20 pieces.
Mix together flour and lard to make a smooth dough B. Roll into a baton-like roll and cut it into 20 pieces.
Flatten pieces of dough A; place pieces of dough B in center of A pieces and wrap edges to enclose B. (To ensure a flaky crust, be sure not to let any part of dough B protrude through dough A.) Lightly flatten. Use a rolling pin to roll dough into a rectangular shape. Beginning at the top edge, roll up the rectangular-shaped dough, jelly-roll style. Turn the piece of dough to a vertical position. Use a rolling pin to roll it to a round shape: roll up the dough again to form a baton-like shape. Repeat this procedure for all remaining pieces of dough.
Assembly: Roll each piece of dough into a 3-inch round piece (middle should be slightly thick and outside edges thin); place 1½ T. filling in center of dough. Fold dough in half and pinch edges to seal. While holding the dough in one hand, use the index finger and thumb of the other hand to fold over the edge about 1/5 inch to make a thin pleat. Make another 1/5 inch fold at the halfway point of this pleat, and continue pleating the edge. Continue pleating the edge to the opposite edge of dough. Coat one side of the dumpling with a little egg yolk. Repeat this process for each dumpling.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake the puffs, egg coated side up, for 20 minutes. Remove and serve.
Note: An easy alternative is to use frozen pastry dough sheets as the shell. The puffs seen in the photo are made with pastry sheets.
Fei-Hsien Wang is associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington.
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