American’s dumpling index food for thought
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 Amazon.com 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”.