I grew up eating some of the top xiao long bao in America–not that I knew that at the time, or that I knew what they were really called–at Flushing’s own Joe’s Shanghai, a mere seven miles from my childhood home. It wasn’t until I ventured to the Beijing branch of Din Tai Fung, a storied Taiwanese purveyor of classic Shanghainese cuisine, however, that I realized the world had even better soup dumplings in store.
Soup dumplings originated in Shanghai (as the name Joe’s Shanghai would seem to suggest) and are its most famous food export–perhaps assorted crab parts, from legs to roe, don’t really captivate the international palate quite as easily. In any case, the best of them are bundles of hot heaven, with a flour wrapper just thick enough to prevent disintegration concealing a mass of steamed pork (or pork-and-crab, if you swing that way) swimming in a sea of soup. The taste is unrivalled in the world of dumplings (except, to be completely fair, by my Great-Aunt Rozzie’s Thanksgiving kreplach). On top of the taste, there is also surprise and wonder, especially on the part of the soup dumpling newcomer: how did they get the soup inside the dumpling?
Behold, the answer (thanks to Google for the link…I had read this somewhere but couldn’t remember where). The Food Section references a 2004 article by Margo True in Saveur, which is sadly unavailable online. Their summary, however, will suffice:
Ms. True writes that the exact origins of soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (“little dumplings from basket”), are unknown, but they first appeared in Nanxiang, northwest of Shanghai, at least 100 years ago…Ms. True reveals the secret behind the soup. The rich liquid comes from small cubes of aspic made from pork skin that is mixed into the filling. As the filling steams, the aspic melts–turning from solid into liquid–and soup dumplings are born.
One of my all-time favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin, writes a bit more eloquently (or at least humorously) about these Shanghai treasures in a New Yorker article that was later included in his book Feeding a Yen (which I actually reviewed for the Harvard Book Review):
Several years ago, Joe’s Shanghai, a Queens restaurant that was noted for its soup dumplings, opened a Manhattan Chinatown branch that became a huge hit with the pasty-faced citizens the Chinese in America sometimes refer to, when in a benign mood, as “foreign devils.” Soup dumplings, which are often called steamed buns on menus, get their name from the fact that the dumpling skin holds not only a core that is often made of pork and crab—Jewish connoisseurs sometimes refer to soup dumplings as “double-trayf specials”—but also a liquid so tasty that diners tend to be sanguine about the clothing stains they acquire while trying to get to it.
Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are exquisite, and not just the soup variety–they make wonderful wontons, superlative shaomai (a taller version than usual, with a dainty shrimp curled into the crimped crown), and delightful dessert buns, filled with either smooth red-bean paste or slightly gritty and sweet black sesame paste). To wash them down, lulu, China’s take on horchata, which tastes like liquid marzipan, is never a bad bet, but the honey cucumber juice is unusually refreshing.
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