Steamed dumplings, or xiao long bao, are an institution in Shanghai, where they are served in a bamboo basket. But with the whole city’s restaurants and cafes to choose from, finding who makes the best wasn’t going to be easy.
Where ever there is food there is a debate over who makes the best version, be that pizza in NYC or fish and chips in England. Shanghai is no exception, and locals and ex-pats alike have long debated where to get the best xiao long bao. One man decided he’d had enough. By day Christopher St Cavish copy-edits for the China offices of two large multinational companies, but his real passion is eating food and writing about it. And so he created The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index.
“The SSDI is a scientific investigation into the quality of soup dumplings in Shanghai. It applies a quantitative framework to the existing qualitative descriptors of the Shanghai soup dumpling” – which, to borrow a line from last year’s smash hit, The Martian, meant Christopher was ‘going to have to science the sh*t out of this’ to find out which was the best dumpling once and for all.
“The elegance of a soup dumpling is its poise, the narrow margin that a cook must master to overcome the physics of a hot, wet package that wants to break” says Christopher. Xiao long bao do indeed require careful preparation. First the wheat-based dough, often referred to as the skin, should be rolled thin, but not too so thin so that the filling will burst out. Within the dumpling is the filling; this consists of a solid ingredient – usually pork, though occasionally other ingredients such as crab can be used – and a liquid soup which is set with gelatine and which melts as the dumplings are steamed. The edges of the dough are folded together 18 times at the top to form the head. Once cooked they are served with spring onions, thin slices of ginger, and shaoxing rice wine as a dipping sauce.
Over the course of a year Christopher sampled 7kg of dumplings (about the weight of a bowling ball) from 52 different establishments. Armed with a set of digital scales and a pair of callipers, he applied a rigorous set of criteria and observations to each one. He analysed skin thickness, precisely weighed the filling, as well as the volume of the soup. These values: the weight of the intact dumpling; the weight of the soup; the weight of the filling; and the thickness of the skin were then plugged into this formula (Filling + Soup / Thickness of Skin) x100. He then judged the construction and made other sensory observations (i.e. he ate them) to give an overall score.
“It was an endurance test but I’m happy that the finished result was actually given a pretty warm welcome by the city. Some of the sense of humor may have been lost in translation but, hey, people can take it, use it, interpret it, deride it, copy it however they want.” Chris tells me. “Getting the data was tedious sometimes but the process of creating the index, with my partner Ailadi Cortelletti, was a lot of fun. I still eat soup dumplings, by the way” he adds.
Why are soup dumplings important to Shanghai? “They are one of the few dishes that Shanghainese can really call their own. The city’s food isn’t one of the Eight Great Cuisines, that old Chinese way to wrap up the regions, and so I think Shanghainese are proud of something they can really call their own. Also, they are a snack food by nature, so everyone can afford them and hence, everyone has an opinion on them. That’s what keeps the big dumpling market turning” says Chris.
So which is the best? Well, the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index is available to buy as both a digital download and as a smartly presented hard copy to treasure. Get it here. You can read a detailed Q&A with Christopher on the project here.
How to eat soup dumplings
If you do find yourself eating Xiao long bao for the first time in Shanghai, or anywhere else for that matter, be warned: many a novice has placed a whole dumpling in their mouth and chowed it down only for it to have it burst, burning the inside of their mouth with scalding hot broth – ouch! With that in mind, here’s a short video on how to eat them properly.
And if you fancy making them for yourself, here’s how to do it.
(dumpling image By Eason Lai from 上海 (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons)