Justine Berfond

There’s something confounding about every aspect of xiao long bao to the unfamiliar consumer. First, you have the fact that it appears to defy laws of physics: the dumplings have an extremely thin skin, but are still just strong enough to hold hot soup and meat inside them, good xiao long bao won’t break until the second you want it to. The dumplings have somehow become the most internationally recognized food to come out of Shanghai to the point where the dish is one of 84 folk arts protected by the Shanghai government.[1] This all in spite of the fact that Shanghai cuisine is marked by its abundance of fresh fish and vegetables, two things xiao long bao never has (with the exception of crab roe in some variations).[2]

The dish is also unique in the specificity of its commonly accepted origin story. The story goes that Huang Minxian, a street-food vendor working in Guyi Garden in Nanxiang – a suburb of Shanghai – in the 1870s, wanted to differentiate his dumplings from his competitors and did so by making them with markedly thinner dough and, most importantly, filling them with soup, the

Nanxiang Restaurant in Shanghai, which claims to be descended from the stand that originally held xiao long bao. CC Matt Chang, Flickr.

mechanisms of which I’ll discuss a little later.[3] However, Mr, Huang most likely did not come up with the idea for xiao long bao all on his own, but was instead inspired by tang bao, a much larger variation on the soup dumpling from the city of Yangzhou.[4] Despite this confusion of origin, one of the most sought-after restaurants for xiao long bao in the world is Nanxiang Restaurant, which claims to be “a branch of [Mr, Huang’s] shop that invented soup dumplings”.[5]

If we’re going to talk about sought after xiao long bao, it would be remiss to exclude mention of Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese establishment specializing in xiao long bao that has gone global, opening restaurants across Eastern Asia, the Pacific, and the West coast of the United States.[6] Although sometimes criticized for not being “authentically Shanghainese,” almost every critic has struggled to criticize the level of perfection the restaurant’s xiao long bao has reached.[7] Contributing to its contrarian image is the fact that the restaurant is on the upscale side, their “bamboo container[s] lined with white cotton” rather than the traditional Napa cabbage or even parchment rounds.[8] Since what’s considered by some to be the best xiao long bao in the world – the Shanghai branch is often recommended among other shops actually originating in Shanghai – is served in a setting so far from the dish’s origins in street food brings concerns of authenticity into play. Is the fact that everything about the Din Tai Fung experience is so perfect take something away from the food or should the dumplings be able to stand on their own regardless of surroundings?

Despite its differences, what Din Tai Fung does match to most other xiao long bao establishments is its meticulousness in preparation. Din Tai Fung actually might be the most obsessive in the creation of their dumplings, known for their “strict adherence to [their] recipe” which includes having exactly 18 pleats in the dough of each dumpling.[9] A restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand shows a similar devotion, requiring each of their dumplings to have “ Five grams of pastry, 16 grams of stuffing, [and] 18 pleats at the top”.[10] Nanxiang Restaurant, that supposed descendent of Mr.Huang’s restaurant, puts exactly sixteen dumplings in every bamboo steamer it’s served in.[11] Additionally, almost every establishment stands by the idea that dumplings must be stuffed, wrapped, and cooked to order since one mistake in detail can lead to too rubbery skin, or soup falling out.[12]

The unique specificity of xiao long bao has even led to chef and food writer Christopher St. Cavish to create “The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index.” The index quantifies the elements of a soup dumpling that supposedly make it delicious: “thin skin, plentiful soup, [and] abundant filling.” Then, using a formula based on the three elements, St. Cavish gives each Shanghai restaurant he visited a score, leading to a ranking of almost every restaurant known for serving xiao long bao in Shanghai. St. Cavish collected his findings by attending each restaurant with a “Kubei 200 gram/0.01 gram scale and Mitutoyo 0-150mm digital calipers” and performing his measurements right then and there. St. Cavish himself recognizes the ridiculousness to his index, but it goes to show the precision and care that goes into creating xiao long bao. However light-hearted the intentions of the index were, it again brings up questions of authenticity. Firstly, it was created as a way to make why something is good “objective fact” rather than opinions biased by things like “a memory of going to that restaurant twenty-two years ago and sitting on your mom’s lap.”[13] Are those things not allowed to matter when it comes to matters of taste though? Isn’t there something to the staying power of food in memory that might qualify it as “good”?

Here in New York, xiao long bao has been, and still is, considered a “fad food” in some ways. The meaning of labeling a dish a fad food or trendy can be debated, and some might even disagree
with me calling xiao long bao that at all. However, in my eyes a fad food is a dish, most of the time originating from a non-Western culture, which mostly white Westerners will “discover” and then afterwards proselytize until the dish becomes inescapable.

Dumpling-Animation

A woman eating xiao long bao. Connvoyage.

In order to find out where New Yorkers’ fixation on xiao long bao started and the reason it falls into what I consider fad foods, I looked through almost every mention of xiao long bao in the New York Times archive. Though this may not be the most conclusive way of looking at New York’s history with the dish, it does tell us where many New Yorkers, specifically those who create the culture of fad foods, were being told they should eat by a person they considered an expert. The first significant article on xiao long bao that I found was published in 1994, and throughout the mid-to-late 1990s there’s a somewhat childlike fascination with the dish. Descriptors like “a triumph of science over nature,” “magical,” and “the best things in the whole world” are frequently used among the writers.[14][15][16] Actually, I can’t stress enough how much food writers at this time used the word “magical” for xiao long bao, they were clearly baffled by the mere existence of a dish of its kind. The two restaurants that seemed to represent the pinnacle of soup dumpling creation were Goody’s – a Rego Park restaurant that has since closed – and Joe’s Shanghai – which opened it’s first restaurant in Flushing, but has since expanded to Chinatown and Midtown. Both restaurants are repeatedly featured in the paper’s “Good Eating” section over the next five or so years. However, in 1999 the Times publishes an article claiming that New Yorkers’ fanaticism over xiao long bao had caused a decline in soup dumpling quality, an explosion in low quality Shanghai restaurants, and an unintended aversion to trying any other Shanghai cuisine. The article’s author, Eric Asimov, goes on to explain that Shanghai restaurants had existed in New York City long before the early 1990s, quashing the idea that the food was some sort of magical discovery. He also claims that American soup dumplings have lost their authenticity, becoming much larger and harder to eat than the originals.[17] After this article, there were almost no mentions of xiao long bao in the New York Times for about a decade.

Now, I have no doubt that people continued eating soup dumplings between 2000 and 2010, but establishments like the Times stopped considering it “the thing to eat,” their time as a trend or a fad among Westerners came to a halt among cries that they no longer served the somewhat shallow hunger for authenticity in the city. The people who would go by these recommendations are fickle beasts, often only seeing food as something to call “so good” and move on from, even when it means ignoring an entire culture or subculture in the process.

In 2010, xiao long bao slowly starts reappearing in the Times, often with that same wonder described in the 90s articles (there are still overexcited words like “epiphany” involved), but also tinted with knowledge of the fanaticism that surrounds the dish.[18] Restaurant reviews are no longer describing the what and how of xiao long bao because they assume their readers already know that. Instead, the reviews talk about quality and whether these specific soup dumplings are qualified to be worthy of their readership’s taste buds. In “Accounting for Taste,” Virginia Heffernan points out the problems behind “soup-dumpling rhapsodizers,” especially in an age where online review sites like Yelp play an ever-growing role in food culture, and points out that this obsession may have “upstaged the real-world fact of soup dumplings”.[19] Heffernan clearly showed in her tone that she was exhausted by not the dumplings themselves, but the discussion of xiao long bao.

What about xiao long bao made it so perfectly set to become a fad food? As food writer Jennifer 8. Lee says it is because xiao long bao is “a very foodie’s food. They combine pleasing textures and even states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. So you can have an opinion about soup dumplings, but a very limited number of places offer them, so people can feel qualified to have an opinion.”[20] There are even more ways that xiao long bao seems to be perfectly suited for

Joe's Shanghai in New York CIty

Joe’s Shanghai in New York CIty

The Bao in New York City

The Bao in New York City

this type of obsession. As discussed earlier, each soup dumpling has quantifiable components that some believe determine how tasty it is. Therefore, it’s extremely easy to voice your opinions on every restaurant’s xiao long bao by picking out the successes and failures of each component. This also makes the dish a perfect fit for the current culture of food writing focused on listicles, if you can quantify how good a dumpling is you can then rank it as the Shanghai Dumpling Index did. Just Google “xiao long bao” and “soup dumplings” and you’ll find article after article with titles like “The 8 Best NYC Soup Dumpling Spots” and “The Best Soup Dumplings In Chinatown, Manhattan.” This, along with the fact that the dish itself has an interactive aspect and has a distinct sense of “otherness” for Westerners while still encountering familiar flavors, made and makes xiao long bao set to become the kind of fad and obsession that can potentially be harmful.

All this background leads to my own experience with xiao long bao. I first tried the dish in my sophomore year of high school. I was with my friend and her mother at a Shanghainese restaurant in Chinatown that has since closed. The bright white décor of the place was almost blinding, and my friend’s mom told me we were here for mainly one thing: soup dumplings. When I first tried them I had about the same experience as those New York Times writers, I thought they were the most wonderful, magical things I had ever experienced and I’ve kept craving more through the years. However, I put little to no thought into any of the context surrounding those dumplings, the same problem I think those writers had, and didn’t explore that context until this project.

Just after I chose xiao long bao as my artifact, I went with my friend, Flora – who is from China and always seemed to be by my side in my recent eating endeavors – to The Bao in the East Village to eat xiao long bao more consciously than I had before. The whole visit was filled with questions about authenticity and who gets to determine it. First, when I told Flora the location of the restaurant she gave me a look of confusion and concern, asking “are you sure this place is good?” I, too, had my reservations about the quality of Shanghainese food sold on St Mark’s Place, since we were both used to eating our Chinese food far closer to Canal Street or in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. It didn’t help that when arriving, our first impression of The Bao was of their décor, the restaurant was well decorated with an almost all black interior and mostly looked like it could be one of the many other “hip” places in the area. This doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but we were so used to eating our dumplings in restaurants with plain white walls and furniture geared more toward utility than aesthetic appeal. However, when we sat down Flora turned to me, smiled, and said, “there’s mostly Asian people here so they’re probably good!” and I have to admit I felt a little more relieved from that comment. We were using all of these factors to try and determine if The Bao was an “authentic” restaurant before even trying its food. When we did try the food, the dumplings were perfect, every element in them seemed to come together in perfect harmony. It seemed our obsessing about every detail of the restaurant was a fool’s effort.

At that same lunch, Flora mentioned to me that she didn’t know anyone who had made xiao long bao from scratch at home. My research confirmed what Flora was suggesting, xiao long bao is strictly street or restaurant food no matter where you eat it, it’s rarely, if ever, made at home. This is probably why when I made xiao long bao at home it became such an event. With my mom working as my sous chef, we set out on a weeklong endeavor to make at least decent soup dumplings. The process was not easy; it involved attempts at making about seven different types of dough, three different types of filling, and two different broths. The week was often frustrating and exhausting, but I saw a change in myself reflected on a larger scale in my mother.

My mom is not the type of woman to try foods outside of her realm. In fact, most times when you suggest a new food to her she responds with blunt answers like “ew” or “no.” This translated in some ways into a lack of respect for any foods that were foreign to her, which was especially true for any food coming out of Asia. Yes, my mother had unintentionally written off an entire continent’s worth of food because it wasn’t familiar. However, during the grueling process of creating our xiao long bao I saw something change in her perception. She would say things like “I can’t imagine having to make these every day, how do they do it?” You could see an admiration and respect grow for an entire realm of food she had written off start to grow. She began to consider the context of the dumplings, especially the process of making them, which gave her a more nuanced view of not only different foods, but also people. In a way, I’ve been doing the same thing with my project, trying to create a context around a food so that I don’t just consume a food, call it magical, and then write a listicle on it, but instead gain a quiet respect for everything a single dumpling contains.


 


 

[1] Daisann Mclane, “Scouring Shanghai for the perfect dumpling,” New York Times, November 14, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/13/travel/13iht-wdumpling.1.8315891.html?_r=0

[2] Eric Asimov, “New Yorkers Embrace a Little Shanghai Specialty,” New York Times, January 13, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/13/dining/new-yorkers-embrace-a-little-shanghai-specialty.html

[3] Jen Liu-Liu, “WEEKEND JOURNAL; Food & Drink — The Dish: Xiao long bao; A Shanghai surprise: These dumplings are dangerous,” The Wall Street Journal Asia, February 23, 2007, http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2171/pqcentral/docview/315335787/A86A8C0A716742F3PQ/1?accountid=12768http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/315335787?accountid=12768

[4] Chris E. Crowley, “Food For Thought: Xiao Long Bao and Authenticity in Food,” Serious Eats, March 22, 2012, http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/03/food-for-thought-xiao-long-bao-and-authenticity-in-food.html

[5] Mclane, “Scouring Shanghai.”

[6] “Din Tai Fung USA,” accessed May 4, 2016, http://dintaifungusa.com/locations_us/

[7] Liu-Liu, “Shanghai surprise.”

[8] Mclane, “Scouring Shanghai.”

[9] Julie Makinen, “Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index: The Nerdiest Food Guide Ever?,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/world/great-reads/la-fg-c1-china-dumplings-20150601-story.html

[10] “XIAO Long Bao dumplings are a Shanghai food miracle,” Dominion Post, July 11, 2012, http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2171/pqcentral/docview/1024272543/AF9AA116D454F46PQ/1?accountid=12768

[11] Na Ayudhya Suthini Jumsai, “In search of the elusive dumpling,” The Bangkok Post, November 22, 2003, http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2171/pqcentral/docview/308905972/BA51D1A7AE174CBAPQ/8?accountid=12768

[12] Mclane, “Scouring Shanghai.”

[13] Christopher St. Cavish, “Behind the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index,” Lucky Peach, April 20, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/behind-the-shanghai-soup-dumpling-index/

[14] Ruth Reichl, “Restaurants,” New York Times, May 20, 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/20/arts/restaurants-149659.html

[15] Ruth Reichl, “Adventurous Asian Cuisine,” New York Times, March 29, 1996, http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/29/arts/adventurous-asian-cuisine.html

[16] “GOOD EATING; Chinatown Calling,” New York Times, April 26, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/26/nyregion/good-eating-chinatown-calling.html

[17] Asimov, “New Yorkers Embrace.”

 

[18] David Corcoran, “Slurp, Bite, Slurp: Shanghai Favorites,” New York Times, April 30, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/nyregion/02dinenj.html

[19] Virginia Heffernan, “Accounting for Taste,” New York Times, October 8, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/magazine/10FOB-medium-t.html

[20] Heffernan, “Accounting for Taste.”