One of the best meals to be had in New York City – and very often my first destination off the plane – is a $5 tray of steaming hot dumplings in Chinatown.
Xiao long bao – pronunciation shao (rhymes with now) lohng (long O like tone) bow (as in take a bow) – aren’t your ordinary dumplings. They don’t look different from your ordinary bite-sized dim sum treat, little packets in a bamboo steamer, but the secret is inside.
Also known as Shanghai soup dumplings, xiao long bao don’t swim in soup, like won tons. Instead they do the neat trick of carrying soup inside the wrapper, the hot broth flavoring both the tender nugget of ground pork and the thin casing of dough tucked tight around to hold in every golden drop.
It’s not an easy trick to get right, and few places do. To get the soup effect, broth is added during the dumpling making, or a bit of cooled gelled broth (the gelatin from broth made with bones makes the liquid a solid gel when cooled) that will melt into liquid during cooking.
Then you have to eat it within minutes of steaming, before the broth gets absorbed into the dough. A xiao long bao made right is ready to burst with meaty juice at the first careful nibble.
I’m back in New York City for a couple of days, celebrating a milestone birthday of our family friend Jenny from Ohio. I planned this quick trip (just an 80 minute flight from Ohio), coming off a fantastic first visit with the kids in April. But I think I came back for me as much as for Jenny, because in April I never got my xiao long bao fix.
Since the xiao long bao craze hit New York City in the late ’90s – in 1999, the New York Times had a great cartoon-strip illustration of the proper eating technique to capture the broth in the without squirting hot broth or burning your mouth with steam – Joe’s Shanghai, with locations in Chinatown and midtown Manhattan as well as Flushing, Queens, has become the go-to spot for locals and tourists.
But for my money – and I’ve had xiao long bao in Shanghai too – the best are at Shanghai Cafe, which somewhere along the way got a neon-uplighting upgrade from its Chinatown utilitarian decor and became Shanghai Cafe Deluxe.
Deluxe or not, $4.95 will still get you a round bamboo steamer with eight little doughy pouches of pure meaty, juicy gold ($6.95 if you want the pork-plus-crab version). read on…