SHANG­HAI SOUP DUMPLINGS

Esquire (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Joe Dun­thorne

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?”

“Sixty poems.”

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

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