In Shanghai people are busy eating. I walk to the Bund and see a policeman slurping noodles upon a staircase. A mother feeds her baby rice on a stoop in Tianzifang. Students bicycle down Nanjing Road, fried breadsticks in hand. It is making me hungry. The snack stalls I pass on the way to meet my companion, Zhu, at Yuyuan Gardens aren’t helping. From their mysterious, cramped interiors I can smell fried dumplings, scallion pancakes, and pork bāozi. I’ve promised Zhu, however, not to indulge on my own. I hasten my steps, mouth watering, in hopes that he’s got something appetizing ready for us.
Just as I enter the tea house where we agreed to convene Zhu pulls me out. “We’re not eating?” I ask, dismayed. “I’m starving!”
“We’re not eating here,” he clarifies.
“No, no, you don’t want to dine at this place. I’ll show you better. You’ll weep about it for weeks after.” He steers me out of the bustling square, down two side streets, away from the elders huddled over clicking tiles. We duck into what I assume is a drain conduit but inexplicably opens into someone’s courtyard. We zigzag through connecting enclosures to exit at a cul-de-sac whose main occupant is a steaming shack lit by a single dangling bulb. Four others crowd mutely around a woman busy ladling tiny dumplings into cardboard egg containers. As soon as she fills a carton it is seized, the snatcher scurrying past us. Soon we are left alone in the blind alley. When she closes the lid on her next batch Zhu pays her. He escorts me against the wall, opens the box carefully. “Do you know what these are?” he whispers.
“Something I can eat, hopefully,” I mutter.
The right corner of his lip curls in contempt. “Xiaolongbao!” My hand goes to grab one of the miniature dough purses nestled in its holder. He shuts the cover on my advancing fingers, moves the package from my reach. “Tsk!” He sucks against his palate. “Don’t be impatient!” I fold my arms. “There’s a way to eat these.” He extracts two pairs of chopsticks from his inner coat pocket. “Pick up soup dumpling from its neck. Bite top off. Suck soup out from opening. Eat rest in one piece.” He demonstrates. I follow his advice, peering in after tearing the top. Marinated meat swims in a shimmering, greasy liquid.
“Oh, there’s soup inside!” I exclaim, astounded. I slurp out the hot, porky fluid. It burns my tongue, my cheeks, my throat in a flavorful surge. “This is amazing!” I tell him. The dumpling itself is thickly sheathed, chewy, gingery. I gobble up the xiaolongbao, jowls working to accommodate the oozing heat. “How on earth does she get the soup in here?”
“You’ll find out at next stop,” he says. Our meal ended, we emerge through the warren onto the western gate of Yuyuan. The streets are livelier here with tea shops, jewelry boutiques, and restaurants. Men stroll up and down, caged birds in tow. Tucked in between a tobacco vendor and a slipper store is a convenience mart. We wend our way through the aisles then pass through a back door into a paved quadrangle. Patio chairs surround a few potted bonsai. In the center is a neon lit hut manned by three ladies. One pummels dough, the second scoops cubed jellies onto steamers, the third stacks the bamboo vessels by the open window. We approach like worshippers to a temple. “See the transparent, wobbling squares?” Zhu inquires of me. “That’s the soup part. They wrap those. When they steam the dumpling it liquifies.”
“Brilliant. Whoever thought up the idea…brilliant.” We get two orders of xiaolongbao, each served in a ramekin accompanied by a ceramic duck spoon. These are larger than the previous ones, palm-sized. They jiggle drunkenly under the weight of their innards. Twisted into a pleated peak, the casing is a gauze I feel will implode at the lightest touch.
“For this, poke a hole at bottom to let out soup. Drink from cup. Eat.” I watch Zhu perform the steps, mimicking him. The broth is earthy, seasoned with kelp and lemongrass; the wrapper dissolves; the airy stuffing clings to my teeth in pasty tenderness.
“Wow…mmm,” I mumble.
“You like it?”
“Better than the first?”
I reflect. “Well, no…I mean…they’re both yummy…though the skin on this is so delicate. How does she manage that?”
“She’s the daughter.”
Zhu nods. “The one whose dumplings you just ate, this is her child.”
“Why don’t they work together?” He shrugs. “Can you ask her?” He lumbers towards the counter, leans in. He converses with the cook shaping the coagulated flour. I slink up behind.
“She says she got kicked out because she didn’t want to make traditional xiaolongbao.”
“Her mother didn’t want to sell both?” I ask. Zhu translates.
“Her ma is dedicated to maintaining the honored method.”
“Has she ever tasted these?”
“She’s missing out.” Rolling out her discs, the owner smiles wryly. She speaks to Zhu.
“Her mother blames her for people preferring this version.”
“So the mom’s dumplings are authentic?”
“What’s authentic?” Zhu counters. “Is there such a thing?”
I ponder this. “Isn’t there? The first xiaolongbao ever made is the standard.”
“For what? Nobody can replicate that, not even the man in Nanxiang who invented them.”
“You’re claiming authenticity doesn’t exist?”
“Not in food. Not in culture.”
“Because of globalization.”
“No. Human nature. It’s in our DNA to tinker with technique.”
“What about sustaining a certain level of geographic accuracy?”
“Time evolves all processes. Climate changes, landscape alters, so ingredients adapt.”
“You don’t admire those who try to preserve historical recipes?”
“Which should be protected? Which respected? Pizza was sweet before Italians imported tomato; egg tarts came to China by way of Portugal; chili peppers were introduced to Asia from Mexico. A lot of cuisines seem iconic in our time, but they’ve progressed from what they were a millennia ago, a century ago, twenty years ago.”
Zhu’s statement lays bare my blind spot. I realize I have been focusing on an idea that doesn’t exist, that I cannot even properly define. I reconsider the dishes I have consumed in my travels: the pre-Incan-Spanish-Japanese melange of Peruvian fare, the French-Chinese influence in Cambodian courses, the melting pot of American menus. Food has always been communal, multicultural. Despite the innumerable schools and books about the subject, cooking has never tolerated precepts or dictates. It has experimented, shared, innovated. Long before we were adjusting to the digital revolution, travelers were exchanging recipes, traders were introducing ingredients, chefs were expanding boundaries.
Consuming the two xiaolongbao, listening to the mother-daughter conflict, I know I have to realign my concepts about cultural authenticity. My search for understanding a geography through its culinary terrain can no longer be as simple as rooting out local flavors. There is history I am ignoring by sticking to provenance. There are nuances I am missing when I prioritize particular customs. Rather than a delectable introduction to a destination, food is a complex deep-dive into our collective troubled past. I have to be willing to go on that journey.
More soup dumplings rise out of the boiling water. The three ladies joke, pack, roll. Customers trickle in. I think about that other dead-end where a similar scene plays out. Two talented women, two exceptional treats. “Zhu,” I request, “can you tell her that I’m happy she forged out on her own? I hope both her mother and she stay in business.” He confers with the proprietor.
“She says she’s happy too and wishes the same.” Twisting her circles of filled buns, the lady grins at me. There is no authentic xiaolongbao in Shanghai. There are only delicious varieties.
BT’s VEGETARIAN SOUP DUMPLING RECIPE
Serves ~40 dumplings Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes [1 hour preparation; 1 hour 30 minutes cooking]
WHAT YOU NEED
Ingredients for soup:
500 ml (2 cups) vegetable stock
½ teaspoon agar powder
Ingredients for wrapper:
145 g (1 ¾ cup) bread flour
75 ml (⅓ cup) water
½ teaspoon salt
Ingredients for filling:
40 g (¼ cup) shredded carrot
55 g (¼ cup) chopped celery
50 g (½ cup) of shredded cabbage
½ teaspoon minced ginger
75 g (½ cup) chopped onion
1 tablespoon cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste
WHAT TO DO
For the gelatin:
- In a medium pot combine vegetable stock and agar. Heat over medium-high heat and stir for 5-10 minutes or until the powder completely dissolves.
- Pour the broth into a container and refrigerate for 40 minutes or as long as it takes for the gel to set.
- When ready, dice gelatin into small pieces. Set aside.
For the wrapping:
- In a mixing bowl add the ½ teaspoon of salt to the bread flour, which is high in protein and can hold in the soup without becoming soggy. Whisk to combine.*
- Pour in a couple of tablespoons of water and mix into the flour. Keep adding the rest of the water slowly to the flour as it thickens.
- Start kneading until all the flour has become dough. Transfer this to a flat surface that has been sprinkled lightly with flour. Continue kneading until dough is smooth and bounces back when poked. Cover with damp cloth and let sit for 30 minutes to allow for even hydration.
- Shape and pull ball of dough with hands into a cylinder of approximately 3 centimeters (~1 ¼ inches) in diameter. Cut strip into even pieces about 2.5 centimeters (~ 1 inch) each.
- Lightly sprinkle flour over the slices. Using a rolling pin flatten and roll into discs which are about 3 ¼ – 4 centimeters (~ 8-10 inches) in diameter. Press out the edges of the discs so that they are thinner than the center to ensure the soup will not leak.
For the filling:
- Place sauté pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles in it. Pour in cooking oil. Stir in ginger and onions. Allow to cook for 5 minutes or until onions are sweating.
- Add in carrots and celery for 2 minutes, or when celery is soft. Add in shredded cabbage, salt, and pepper for another 2 minutes, or until cabbage is wilted. Mix everything well.
- Set aside filling to cool at room temperature.
For the dumpling:
- In a large bowl, combine your vegetable filling with your gelatin chunks. Lightly hand toss so that they become one mixture.
- Gently holding a wrapper in one hand, scoop in a tablespoon of filling and gelatin into the middle of the circle.
- Lift up a section of the casing’s edge with your index finger and thumb. Pinch it against the neighboring rim to form a fold. Continue pleating all the way around until you have a pouch with a small opening. Twist and nip the hole closed. This will be the most difficult and time consuming portion.
- Repeat the above two steps for each bun you wish to make or until all the wrappers are filled.
- Line a steamer with cabbage leaves, then place your dumplings inside the basket 1 ¼ centimeters (~ ½ inch) apart.
- Steam dumplings over boiling water for 5-8 minutes, or until they become puffy and translucent. The soup inside should turn into liquid.
- Serve promptly with a side of soy sauce and grated ginger. Enjoy. Please warn guests that the interiors of the dumplings will be hot!
* BT Tip: If you do not want to knead and roll your own dough, purchase wonton wrappers as an easy substitute.