Friends…When a Soup Dumpling calls, you might as well just give in, because really there is no escape. A Soup dumpling or a Xiao Long Bao to be proper, is a pork and crab meatball wrapped in a pleated wrapper of flour dough which is then steamed. The meatball is infused with a solidified ge’lee of broth, so that when it steams, this ge’lee reverts back to soup. When properly made (which is tough as a lot can go wrong! A soup dumpling requires MAXIMUM timing, freshness and technique) the end product hits the pinnacle of taste sensations; silken wrappers, rich soup, delectable meatball. When I first encountered this treat back in the late 90s at the famous Joe’s Shanghai, I went crazy. I found myself there at least twice a week with steamer after steamer arriving to fulfill my seemingly unquenchable Xiao Long Bao lust. I became an expert at deftly transporting the delicate dumpling from steamer to spoon without rupturing the delicate skin and losing the soup; I developed a methodology of cooling, adding ginger, red chile, malt vinegar and finally slurping that maximized my enjoyment — a methodology I adhere to and try to extort others to follow. Witness the family of Texans that told me to “mind your own business! We know how to eat!” when I tried to explain the ground rules of soup dumpling etiquette as they were attacking their treasures with forks and losing all the unctuous broth. In short I had a problem, and that problem took me a few years to finally reign it in. Which I did…Barely.
There is a new restaurant that has opened up on Bowery, right by the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. I pass it every day. Right above the door is a grand billboard, a high resolution image of a perfect Soup Dumpling — white wrapper crested with the orange roe of a Hairy Crab. You can sense the soup bubbling inside, the heat and deliciousness coming together…
It took only two days. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my wife, Exquisite Maiko and headed for lunch at our favorite Soup Dumpling spot, Shanghai Cafe. I would have tried, and will try the new spot — but when the call of the dumpling was this severe, I could not risk disappointment.
When the first steamer basket arrived Exquisite Maiko and I sighed. Eight perfect dumplings encased in steam. I lifted the first up, gently placed it on my spoon and nipped off the top of the dumpling. Using a spoon (which you have to ask for!) I dripped some vinegar and shredded ginger into the center of my dumpling. Preparing myself for the scalding, delectable heat, I then slurped up the broth. With something that can only be described as sensual, that rich broth flooded my senses…I took a breath and then devoured the dumpling skin and the interior meatball. Silken. Rich. Layers of pork flavors mingling with the heady inclusion of crab and that final tang of vinegar. A perfect bite. A bite for the ages.