When you enter Joe's Shanghai in New York City(once you manage to get a seat that is), the first thing a waiter will ask you before you even look at the menu is whether you want to order these little beauties. What are they? Most people simply translate them as Soup Dumplings. They appear as the first and second items on the menu as Pork Steamed Soup Dumplings. Its name in Chinese is xiao long tang bao, if any cares to know. Basically this is Joe's Shanghai's claim to fame. You'll be hard pressed to find these in many places, and Joe's Shanghai claims to have been the original inventors of this delicious steaming specialty. It comes relatively cheap too at $4.25 for that entire rack, (more towards $6 if you venture out into the expensive Midtown branch), and it's well worth the price. So what are they?
These little jewels are pork dumplings(the pork filling is heaven), wrapped in a nice thick chewy dumpling skin. Inside the skin, marinating and bathing the filling is a nice hot soupy mixture that gives the Soup Dumpling it's name. It' usually pools at the bottom and causes the bottom of the dumpling to splay out like you see in the picture. There's really nothing else like this, and I've had this at other restaurants, but nobody comes even close to making it like Joe's Shanghai does.
Now there is a proper way that this needs to be eaten, or else it can be a painful and burning experience, or a very sloppy and messy one. Too often I've seen people burn their lips, the roof of their mouths, and other parts because they weren't prepared for how hot the soup inside was and weren't prepared for it to squirt out of the dumpling like a nicked artery when they eat it wrong. Other times, if it doesnt squirt into their mouths, it ends up all over the table, or on other people's plates, or even on other people. That's not preferable, not because you're making a mess, but you'll be losing the soup, which is what makes the dumplings delicious.
So how do you eat it??(you can skip this if you think it's silly, but come back to it if you end up spilling the soup or burning yourself)
The first challenge comes in grabbing a dumpling for yourself. The dumplings come in a bamboo steamer, steamed on top of cabbage leaves. Many people just scramble for them, using chopsticks or forks, tear them apart, and watch the precious soup ooze out all over the lettuce. Then a look of disappointment comes over the entire table. The right way of grabbing these guys is to take the tongs that are provided, grab onto the TOP of the dumpling, where it the skin makes a little knob. This is the thickest and strongest part of the dumpling that hasn't been weakened by the soup, and will prevent tearing. You then SLOWLY lift the dumpling up, to see if it's stuck to the skin of another dumpling, so you can avoid tearing either, and thenif it is stuck, you gently use your soup spoon or chopsticks to slowly nudge away the skins from each other. You then place the dumpling in the soup spoon as much as possible.
You'll notice that the Soup Dumplings come with a little condiment. A sauce. What's in this sauce? It's basically soy sauce mixed with Chinese vinegar and a healthy addition of ginger. The ginger is an important part of the sauce because it's the ingredient that basically gives the sauce its unique taste and brings it to life. Without the ginger, it's just a salty and bitter mix of soy sauce and vinegar. With the ginger, it's a perfect complement to the dumplings. Take a small spoonful of this sauce, with some ginger, and just glaze it across the top of your soon to be eaten dumpling. Don't use too much, or the vinegar can be overpowering to your sense of taste and smell. Make sure u get some ginger on the dumpling as well.
Now you're ready to eat it. To avoid the soup spilling out as you eat it or burning yourself or anyone else, this is a two handed coordinated feat.You use your non dominant hand to bring the soup spoon up towards you, and your dominant hand will use chopsticks to grab hold of the dumpling and tilt the dumpling up towards you while it rests on the spoon. Then you can take a nice bite out of it. That first bite will give you a good taste of it, let steam out of the dumpling so u dont burn yourself in the same way if you took the entire thing in one bite, and also allow any soup if it leaks out, to leak into the spoon. Most likely the soup will not leak out much because the dumpling is tilted back, and the soup has pooled towards the part of the dumpling where the skin still remains intact. Good first bite, but the second bite is the best. Now that everything is settled, you can jsut take the spoon, and shove the entire rest of the dumpling in your mouth, soup and all, and savor a little taste of Shanghainese paradise.
These soup dumplings also come in a different variety, where the filling is pork mixed with crab meat. A little more expensive, with a bit of a seafood twist, they're just as delicious. Go ahead, and next time you're in New York City, give these guys a try.
NEXT UP - Pork with Salted Vegetables Noodle Soup