SHANGHAI SOUP DUMPLINGS
An essay by novelist and poet Joe Dunthorne
Before I moved to Shanghai, I spent a lot of time in Shanghai, a restaurant in east London. My favourite dish was the gooey, soup-filled dumplings, which looked like popped-out eyeballs. The first time I tried to eat one, I spilled a slick of hot gravy down my shirt, the liquid so fatty it made the fabric transparent, my nipple suddenly visible in the middle of the restaurant.
Then I arrived in Shanghai for a two-month writing residency. The first thing I did was search “best dumplings in Shanghai” and discovered a document called The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index. It “applies a quantitative framework to the existing qualitative descriptors” of the city’s most beloved dish, the xiaolongbao. The author — an American named Christopher St Cavish — took scales, scissors and Japanese digital callipers to more than 50 restaurants and, according to his findings, the fourthbest soup dumplings in the whole city, and therefore, probably, fourth best in the world, were in a bland mall’s basement food court 50m from the door to my apartment. At the time, this seemed like good news.
I learned that, if I got lucky with the elevator, I could get from my desk in my room on the 19th floor to the xiaolongbao counter in less than a minute. It took perhaps 30 seconds for the owner to take my money and my order: middle picture, set menu three. Then five minutes to cook, half a minute to cool. So seven minutes from the thought — “I would like to eat the fourth-best soup dumpling in the world” — to feeling it implode on my tongue.
I remember the first bite. The chef took the steamer’s lid off with a magician’s flourish, a veil of vapour rising between us. I was too afraid to use chopsticks so, with my fingers, I lifted a dumpling by its pursed top, let it breathe in the air, craned it onto my tongue, held it a moment then pressed my teeth to the pastry, felt the skin tear, the almost toohot soup filling the gullies of my mouth, a flush of pork fat, the undertow of crab meat, every tastebud vibrating. What I remember most was the sense of surprise. Like finding a £20 note.
I ate the other five and ordered more. This time I used chopsticks because I wanted to become embedded in my new culture. Straight away, the pastry ripped and spilled its insides. It was interesting to see what was in the soup: tiny baubles of fat and what looked like fingernail clippings. I think, by that point, I was so in love that even if they had been real human fingernail clippings I would have trusted that they added texture and ordered more. I brought my face closer and realised, with shock, that they were minuscule prawns. Each one with many hair-like legs tucked underneath the body. I would never have expected to find, in this small pocket of soup, a large family of decapod crustaceans, more than 100 legs between them.
I immediately wrote a poem. That was, after all, the reason I was in Shanghai. I was going to write one every day, responding to the city. At that moment it seemed entirely conceivable I might write another 59 poems about soup dumplings.
Luckily, I did not. In my first week, I roamed the city on foot, led by instinct alone, wrote about retirees line-dancing in the park, and street karaoke, and the nimble, spidery fingers of the virtuoso bass player in the all-female house band of a North Korean bar. The second week, starting to use my guidebook, I wrote about the water sluice museum, which must count as Shanghai’s most hard-to-love tourist attraction. I took a three-day round trip to sit on top of the Great Wall and wrote a poem about walls. The third week, I was flagging a little and spent a day indoors when the pollution was bad. I wrote a poem about me and my sister going climbing, back in London. All the while, I ate an average of seven xiaolongbao a day. Some days none, some days 18. One poem for every seven dumplings. If they had been sonnets, that’s a dumpling per couplet.
By the sixth week, I was staying in for days at a time, leaving the apartment only to eat the same meal I had eaten every day since I arrived. I wrote poems about my grandmother, about Yuri Gagarin, about the texture of Mark Hamill’s torso in the nude scene of John Carpenter’s 1993 film, Body Bags.
I was not embedded in the culture. It was becoming clear that the only thing I could claim any expertise over were these particular dumplings from this particular counter. Soon I would be going home and it felt vital to imagine ways in which my trip had been worthwhile. Then I realised: although I had little knowledge of the city or its people, although my poems were largely forgettable, I was one of, if not the world expert on the world’s fourth-best xiaolongbao. And that was valuable. It had to be. Otherwise I was a terrible person.
I came back to London and people asked how my trip was.
“Fascinating,” I said. “Just a fascinating culture.” “Get much work done?”
I booked myself and my wife a table in Shanghai and, when we got there, I didn’t even use the menu. “Er, xiaolongbao, xie xie,” I said, using, in one sentence, most of the Mandarin I had learned. The steaming basket came out. According to the objective criteria of the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, they were not doing well. The pastry was thick and leaking. My wife ate one and said it was truly delicious. This was the moment. If these dumplings tasted horrendous, then I had become a connoisseur who’d spent his time abroad well, gaining a deep, specific knowledge of something at the heart of the city. If these dumplings tasted delicious, I was a self-deluding fake, determined to dignify his laziness as depth.
I lifted a dumpling with chopsticks. It was one of the worst things I have tasted. That was a wonderful relief.
My wife ate one more, making an audible pleasure noise. “These are disgusting,” I said.
“Get over yourself,” she said. “Write a poem about it.” And I did.
Joe Dunthorne’s new novel The Adulterants (Hamish Hamilton) is out now
Illustration by Harriet Lee Merrion