The soup dumpling is a closely held but elusive pleasure in the Northwest, more difficult to find than fine caviar or scotch, although it is neither expensive nor fancy. Its key ingredient, the part that becomes the 'êsoup'ê in soup dumplings, does however take a long time to prepare, and the assembly of the package demands great care.
'êYou have to know how to make them and they'êre not easy to make,'ê said David Fu, owner of the popular Snappy Dragon restaurant (started by his mother, Judy Fu), which mistakenly gets credit in online food circles for serving soup dumplings. In fact, the restaurant'ês jiao zi dumplings are an entirely different dish, northern Chinese in provenance, while the soup dumpling comes from southern China.
'êI don'êt know how to make them. They'êre a Shanghai specialty. If you don'êt make them right, it doesn'êt turn out very good. You can get them in Vancouver (B.C.) but only in a couple of restaurants.'ê
What Americans refer to as soup dumplings are the bite-sized xiao long bao, which arguably inspire more passion than any other kind of dumpling in the world. Just about every culture has some form of meat-filled food tradition. The Japanese have gyoza, the Koreans mandoo, the Russians pelmeni, the Italians ravioli and so on. But the Chinese seem to have the most sophisticated array of the food form, evidenced at any serving of dim sum. Chinese dumplings can be round, oval, cylindrical, fried, steamed and braised. Only the Chinese have a dumpling that contains soup.
Soup dumplings — often written on English menus as pork steamed buns — are called so not because they are served in soup but because soup is contained within the wrapping. Simply written, the concept is irresistible. Once eaten, devotion is all but assured. The trick of inserting soup inside the wrapping is ingenious. The fat-infused soup stock is chilled to solid, gelatin form so that it can be cut into cubes and wrapped with cold ground meat. When steamed, the gelatin turns to liquid. (There is an even more decadent form of the soup dumpling called tang bao or dong bao, a much larger cousin filled almost entirely with soup and sipped through a straw inserted into the top of the dumpling.)
The sensation of hot broth gushing out of thin wrapping as you bite down on an unctuous nugget of ground pork (and sometimes crab) is as unique as any in the eating world, which perhaps explains the impassioned followers of xiao long bao.
Not widely understood in Seattle, the dumplings have inspired the creation of a small, local Facebook group called 'êShanghai Dumplings,'ê described as 'êa fan club for one of the most perfect foods on the planet.'ê Few foods, indeed, are as perfectly constructed as xiao long bao. The skin has to be rolled thin but be strong enough to keep the broth from leaking. The concept that sets it apart from other foods and other dumplings is so simple, yet almost profound and prescient.
The vanguard of high-end cuisine these days, in large part, amounts to the deconstruction of food, reducing flavors to foam or vapor, fiber or ingot. It is both scientific and artistic in approach, advancing the cooking process to isolate and transport a concentrated flavor in an unexpected form. Similarly, a soup dumpling takes an old and familiar food form and gives it a twist, delivering a highly-concentrated flavor (the soup) in an unexpected vessel.
So far, the 36 members of the Shanghai Dumpling Facebook group have spent most of their postings on the search for xiao long bao near Seattle. The consensus is that the real thing does not yet exist in the Seattle area, although approximations have been found sporadically at restaurants like the Noble Court in Bellevue.
I found only two restaurants that make an earnest effort to create xiao long bao, and only one that achieves reasonable success. The Shanghai CafÃ© near the Factoria shopping center in Bellevue and the Rocking Wok in Wallingford both claim to serve xiao long bao. The Shanghai CafÃ© calls them Shanghai steamed dumplings ($6.50 for eight); the Rocking Wok lists them as pork steamed buns ($3.95 for six).
While both versions are undoubtedly juicy and look the part with tightly pleated wrapping, the Rocking Wok comes closest to bringing true xiao long bao to Seattle. The soup in the Shanghai CafÃ© version is inconsistent. Some dumplings are juicy; some are relatively dry. The skin is thicker, stickier and more prone to rupture. None of the dumplings at the Rocking Wok broke before eating despite having a thinner skin. And all of them excreted an equal amount of soup.
Rocking Wok'ês chef Der Yang is from Taiwan and his xiao long bao possess a Taiwanese bent, slightly smaller, the wrapping more dense, the filling more tightly packed and containing less liquid than the Shanghai version. Both are eaten informally and with great loyalty in their countries of origin, out of street stalls as well as restaurants.
Yang makes his broth by boiling pork skin for almost three days. He then takes the resulting aspic and freezes it before it goes into the dumplings. He prefers a ratio of three parts ground pork to one part soup. A larger soup-to-meat ratio, he said, would be too hot. He then considered the matter further and backpedaled a bit, saying, 'êThat would be OK too.'ê He estimates that, on average, he sells one order of steamed buns to every table of customers, every day.
The risk of tongue burn is a well-known hazard of soup dumplings and part of their allure. If the soup dumpling problem in Seattle can be reduced to a single issue, it is that steamed buns in Seattle simply do not contain enough, if any, soup.
The basis for comparison for most Americans (myself included) who have not actually been to Shanghai are the soup dumplings that took New York by storm more than 12 years ago. That's when a restaurant called Joe'ês Shanghai, with outlets in Queens and lower Manhattan, started serving them in two varieties: pork, and pork with crab and roe. They became so popular, especially during cold weather, that waiters simply assumed you wanted an order as soon as you took your seat. Most customers did.
The exchange went something like this: You and your companions sat down; your server asked, 'êYou want one or two?'ê There was no need to specify what exactly you wanted one or two of. Since baskets of these dumplings were continually being steamed, you waited only a few minutes for them to arrive. Only after they arrived did you proceed to order the rest of your meal. Dumplings came six to an order, served in the bamboo basket they were steamed in, atop a bed of wilted Chinese cabbage, with a dipping sauce of black vinegar and slivered ginger. (Shanghai CafÃ© and Rocking Wok serve their dumplings in metal baskets.)
Before long, Chinese restaurants all over New York, even those that did not specialize in Shanghai-style cooking, were serving consistent versions of xiao long bao, with thin, delicate skins and at least a mouthful of oil-glistened broth that caused the dumplings to sag at the bottom. Soup dumplings are so popular and ubiquitous in that city, they have nearly become one of those New York foods, like bagels and lox, or pastrami — food you can eat only in New York.
While many restaurateurs in Seattle seem to be aware of xiao long bao, few have bothered or risked the undertaking. The logical suspects, like the popular Shanghai Garden restaurant in Chinatown, serve only a dry version of steamed pork dumplings. The same goes for the Fu Man Dumpling House near Bitter Lake; ditto on Yu Shan in Bothell. The much trumpeted (and deservedly so) Chiang'ês Gourmet in Lake City does slightly better with a juicy if not soupy version of steamed pork dumplings.
A curious pattern emerged in the search for soup dumplings in Seattle. Inquiries or requests at many area establishments were met with an attitude that was distinctly defensive, almost resentful, rather than apologetic, suggesting the lack of soup dumplings in Seattle is not an issue of ignorance, logistics, ingredients, know-how, or demand, but simply one of regional pride and stubbornness. Sadly, the brand of Chinese food in Seattle, varied and wonderful as it is, simply does not do soup dumplings.
If you go:
Rocking Wok, 4301 Interlake Ave. N., 206-545-4878. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Shanghai CafÃ©, 12708 S.E. 38th St., Bellevue, 425-603-1689. Open 11 am. To 9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.,