The New York Times calls xiao long bao “an elegant culinary achievement masquerading as a humble snack”. The famous Shanghai steamed dumpling is made of minced pork that is wrapped, with soup, inside a pleated flour dough skin. Not every chef gets it right: the flour wrap should be chewy but delicate; and the pork filling should have the right balance of fat and lean meat so that is not overly greasy or too rubbery.
Practically every food critic has published their view on where to hunt down the best xiao long bao. But leave it to Christopher St. Cavish to take the obsession with the dumpling to the extreme. The American chef-turned-food writer has lived in Shanghai for a decade. And over the past year he has been on a quest, sampling and testing as many as 52 purveyors of the delicacies in the city.
The writer divides the 52 restaurants into Class A (a score of 12 or above), B (6.75 or above) and C (below 6.75 – “to be avoided”). Most Class A dumplings, he says, were at least 20% soup by weight and none had a skin thicker than 1.36mm. Taiwan’s famed xiao long bao chain Din Tai Fung – despite being a Michelin-starred restaurant – only ranked seventh on his index with a score of 13.86. Local joint Zun Ke Lai, which is located in the southwestern downtown area, topped his chart with a mark of 24.32.
St. Cavish is very scientific in his approach. Using an electronic scale, digital callipers and a set of 140-millimetre shearing scissors (all purchased from Alibaba’s Taobao), he told the Financial Times he would “go into a restaurant and order one basket of dumplings, usually with about six in it… I’d take out each dumpling individually and weigh it and then snip a hole in the side and pour the soup out and weigh it; then I’d squeeze out the meat and do the same. Using my callipers I’d measure the thickness of the skin on the bottom of the dumpling.”
But not everyone appreciates his way of sampling the soup dumpling. One woman, who watched St. Cavish as he went about his method, was so offended she shouted at him: “Do you know how to eat a xiao long bao? You can’t eat it like that. This is wrong! This is wrong,” he recounted to China Business View.
Nevertheless, St. Cavish admits that the index is not meant to be taken too seriously. “You can use it as a guide, you can laugh at it as a fool’s errand, you can read it as an assessment of technical skills at a bunch of restaurants. I just wanted to do something different, something fun, and something that was silly and serious at the same time,” he told the China Daily.
Still, his experiment has garnered a lot of attention online. “Foreigners’ seriousness and meticulousness in tackling a problem will help increase efficiency and accuracy, this is something we must learn,” one netizen wrote. But some say the American writer completely misses the point about culinary art. “There is no doubt that foreigners take precision very seriously. That’s why McDonald’s is the biggest restaurant chain in the world. But for Chinese cuisine, it is hard to standardise because a lot of it depends on the chef’s experience… There is not one standard for everything,” another wrote.
What’s next? Already, St. Cavish says he is ready to take on sheng jian bao (a shallow-fried pork bun), another Shanghainese favourite (see our Fast Food column in issue 81).
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