Getting Italy’s Food Snobs to Fall in Love with Dumplings

When the corporate world thinks of China, they often forget the 50 million Chinese living outside the mainland. From Paris to New York, Melbourne to Abu Dhabi, first- and second-generation migrants are increasingly demanding a taste of home. TSI wants to see just what is going on with the Chinese diaspora, so we’ve partnered with a number of Chinese living around the world to bring you “TSI Global Voices”. Jiaqi Luo, our Milan-based correspondent, went out to see how Chinese in Italy are reinventing humble dumplings to meet discerning palettes.

As with any nation of foodies, Italy has its fair share of food snobs. This is a place where people are obsessed with knowing where there food is coming from and ensuring ingredients are as “0 KM” as possible. Italy is also known as a place that invented the slow food movement and complicated labeling systems like DOP, IGP, and DOC to protect a proud and historic food culture.  For Italians, good food means a farm-to-table meal made with local fresh produce, prepared with family recipes, and lots of love.

This then leads to a sense of superiority when it comes to Italian cuisine. Foods from other parts of the world have a difficult time penetrating this barrier. For example, the city of Verona recently attempted to ban kebab and gyro sales as their image would disrupt the city’s “decorum”. Perception about Chinese food aren’t much better. Although spring rolls and fried rice are as ubiquitous as pasta, these bastardizations are too greasy, too numbing, and too “disingenuous” to meet local standards.

In Milan, Italy’s most progressive metropolis, this concept of farm-to-table has taken an unexpected turn that may benefit the age-old image of Chinese food. Today to stand out among the hundreds of restaurants in the city, food has to not only be fresh but also attractive. Innovators in the F&B scene are pushing this idea to its limits offering unique street food concepts throughout the city.

Ravioleria open lab

Food innovator Hujian Zhou, a second generation Italian-Chinese, has ticked all these boxes with his Ravioleria Sarpi. It started as a Milanese success, but word soon spread among the Italian foodie community. Many Italian youngsters, who have a limited history with Chinese food, lauded the food. They told me they would rather “…eat in this authentic Chinese place, or not eat Chinese food at all.” A middle-aged man from Genoa showed me a newspaper clipping about the restaurant, explaining how much he loves to travel up just for the dumplings. Even Gambero Rosso, the Italian equivalent of the Michelin guide, described the dumplings as a perfect marriage of the “best of China and best of Italy.”

Now, you may be expecting white tablecloths and fine stem ware. Ravioleria Sarpi, though, is a hole-in-the-wall shop nestled in Milan’s Chinatown. What sets it apart is presentation, with a clean font, food demonstrations, and various stickers claiming the premium organic quality of their flour and meat. They use only “Organic Type 0 Flour”, or Farine bio del Mulino Sobrino. This high-quality flour is a must for fine Italian cooking. Second, they only use cage-free eggs from Cascina Moneta, a supplier for the upmarket food outlet Eataly. Third, and most importantly, the meat fillings only come from “Macelleria Sirtori” butchery next-door. Hujian Zhou’s business model, with all the strictly controlled food origins, would suffice even the pickiest Italian standards for real food.

Ravioleria sarpi, a hole-in-the-wall shop in Milan’s Chinatown

The boutique format provides a street food concept quite new to Italy. The neighborhood has been going through a spate of gentrification. Although Italian locals sip bubble tea in trendy Chinese-owned pasticceria, most Chinese migrants have since moved to the periphery of the city. My Italo-Chinese colleagues summed things up best in telling me Ravioleria is a place fusing what Chinese dumplings are with what health-conscious, stylish locals want.

I ordered two dumpling classics, one with beef and one with pork. From outside, the yellow, thick pasta dough looks more similar to the Italian ravioli than a proper Chinese dumpling. It was a juicy bite – soon, the grass-fed beef flavor came with warm broth. With little salt, no soy sauce, and absolutely no MSG (the store was proud to claim that), this Italianized dumpling made me feel pretty free of guilt. The natural, full flavor of meat and good carb felt satisfying.

Food demonstration with Bio labels

This dumpling was different than a homemade dumpling in China. It did taste like fusion. It felt special, like a family recipe from northeast China made with Italian-approved ingredients. Youngsters and families around me were devouring the dumplings on the street, saying they were “buonissimo.”

“How is this dumpling different than other Chinese food you’ve eaten?” I asked one twenty-something.

“Though I like the savory, intense taste of Chinese food, I don’t perceive it as healthy. But this place changed my perception. I would bring my date here. It’s like a new snack choice.”

Fusion dumplings that look like ravioli

The world’s metropolis nowadays is definitely not short of fusion food. Where most of the innovation is coming from, though, is in type of cuisine. Whether that’s a pilaf from Iran, tempe-based vegan dish, or street food concept, Milan offers an endless array of choices. Where we haven’t seen so much innovation is in how and why the food is made, and whether or not it contributes to a wider cultural dialogue.

Ravioleria Sarpi is certainly leading the way with bridging cultures and changing preconceived notions of what Chinese food can be. Other ethnic Chinese cuisines are following the example too. A Lanzhou Lamian shop has incorporated local Milanese wood into the noodle making process, and a dim sum bar has deliberately designed a “made in Italy” menu with local fillings such as local ricotta and cacio e pepe. These restauranteurs are all working to bring fusion food to a new generation of Italians.

A very happy correspondent