I grew up knowing that buns ( 饅頭 , /man to/, ㄇㄢˊ ㄊㄡˊ ) are different from buns with fillings inside ( 包子 , /bao zi/, ㄅㄠ ㄗ˙ ), and buns with fillings inside are also different from “dumplings” ( 餃子 , /jiao zi/, ㄐㄧㄠˇ ㄗ˙ ) that are not steamed but boiled. However, when I learned that sometimes lines are not clearly drawn between buns and buns with fillings (both are called buns) and between buns with fillings and dumplings (both are called dumplings), I really thought that the English language could have done more to differentiate them from each other.
It was a struggle to accept that Americans categorize buns as anything that appear bread-like, and dumplings are anything with fillings inside. I was angry at the English language itself, which yielded no fruit (food puns intended).
But no foods of the world are immune to this kind of categorization. Ravioli, tortellini, and even gnocchi are categorized as “dumplings”. In fact, NPR had a quest to build a list of dumplings based on this broad agglomeration of different types of food. Recently, I met two Italians who just couldn’t accept that people call spaghetti “noodles”, but the fact is, in the English language, all unleavened dough that are stretched and boiled are called noodles.
Over the years, I have started to soften up and accept that there is a limitation to the English language, and I have stopped making a fuss about the whole buns-buns with fillings-dumplings situation. I also accept that English, a language that is spoken so broadly in the world, does not have enough broad vocabulary to fit everything, I just have to embrace it. Once in awhile though, I still take comfort in that “samosas” and “tamales” are disputed as dumplings and learned to go with the flow.
An “oversimiplified” chart of food categorization in the English language:
Buns (include 饅頭 and 包子 )
Dumplings (include 包子 , 餃子 , ravioli, tortellini, momo, pierogi, etc.)
Noodles (include 麵 , spaghetti, pasta of all shapes and sizes)