Amer­i­can’s dumpling in­dex food for thought

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINESE TRAIN PROJECTS AROUND THE WORLD - By LI XUEQING in Shang­hai lix­ue­qing@chi­

A food writer from the United States has made one of the city’s fa­vorite lo­cal treats — xi­ao­long­bao, or soup dumplings — a sub­ject of sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Christo­pher St. Cav­ish an­a­lyzed soup dumplings at 52 restau­rants in Shang­hai over the last 16 months in an ef­fort to de­ter­mine the quan­ti­ta­tive stan­dards of the popular Shang­hai dim sum snacks.

This tra­di­tional Shang­hai snack is known for its thin skin and meat fill­ing with soup in­side. It is steamed and served in a bamboo bas­ket and is popular across China.

St. Cav­ish went to dif­fer­ent restau­rants to test out their soup dumplings. He weighed the fill­ings and the soup and mea­sured the thick­ness of the skin. He then used this to grade the restau­rants from A to C.

He mea­sured six dumplings at each restau­rant to con­trol the vari­ables of the ex­per­i­ment. If one dumpling came apart while be­ing han­dled, he mea­sured five. If two broke, he dis­qual­i­fied the eatery on the ba­sis of sloppy stan­dards.

He or­dered over 7 kilo­grams of soup dumplings and ad­mits to quit­ting early at the 11th restau­rant he vis­ited as his stom­ach couldn’t take any more.

The tools he used in­cluded a dig­i­tal scale that mea­sured to within one-hun­dredth of a gram, dig­i­tal calipers that mea­sured to within one-hun­dredth of a mil­lime­ter, and a pair of sharp scis­sors.

Sur­pris­ingly, other cus­tomers tended to ig­nore his un­ortho­dox eat­ing habits, he said. He re­calls just one oc­ca­sion when an el­derly Shang­hainese woman got fu­ri­ous and yelled at him for not un­der­stand­ing or re­spect­ing Chi­nese dining eti­quette.

St. Cav­ish sold all 300 printed copies of his in­dex within the first week of its launch in April. He is now print­ing more. But at 50 yuan ($8) a pop, the in­dex is more ex­pen­sive than most other pa­per­backs on cooking and food listed on Ama­ in China. They usu­ally sell for be­low 35 yuan.

The Amer­i­can landed in Shang­hai 10 years ago as a sous chef for Jade on 36 at the Pudong Shangri-La. Prior to that, he spent an­other decade as a chef in the United States.

In Shang­hai, he also be­came a food writer and has stum­bled into real es­tate and risk con­sul­tancy, writ­ing mar­ket re­ports, news sum­maries and white pa­pers for cor­po­rate clients.

This time he funded his own project be­cause of his love of Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings, he said.

Din Tai Fung is a Tai­wanese food chain that spe­cial­izes in soup dumplings. Crit­ics claim its dumplings are over­priced and made for for­eign­ers who don’t know any bet­ter.

On St. Cav­ish’s in­dex, it joins Shang­hai’s home­grown Jia Jia Tang Bao in re­ceiv­ing a Class A rat­ing. How­ever, one short­com­ing of his rat­ing sys­tem is that it fails to present a clear con­clu­sion of which one tastes bet­ter.

“His way of quan­ti­fy­ing food is in­her­ently in­com­pat­i­ble with Chi­nese cui­sine,” said Yu Qinyuan, a food critic born in Shang­hai.

“What he did was in­ter­est­ing, but not in­struc­tive in de­cid­ing which dumpling tastes bet­ter,” she said, claim­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence is more im­por­tant in Chi­nese cooking than it is among West­ern chefs.

Yu cited the ex­am­ple of cooking beans. Beans vary in ten­der­ness depend­ing on the date they are picked. An ex­pe­ri­enced Chi­nese cook will ad­just the time of cooking based on this to achieve the op­ti­mal re­sult.

“You can’t say cooking beans for ex­actly two min­utes is the best way. Too much ac­cu­racy in cooking means in­ac­cu­racy.”

St. Cav­ish ad­mit­ted that peo­ple have dif­fer­ent opin­ions and tastes.

“I’m just of­fer­ing a way to ob­jec­tively com­pare one shop to an­other. Taste is sub­jec­tive, but what’s on your plate or in your bamboo bas­ket can be mea­sured ob­jec­tively.”

“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.”

Yu said she would still like to pur­chase a copy of the in­dex “be­cause it’s fun”.


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