Chi­nese food for thought

In­dex gives dumpling afi­ciona­dos some­thing to chew on

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Maki­nen re­port­ing from shang­hai

Chef-turned-food writer Christo­pher St. Cav­ish is strid­ing to­ward the front door of the Wel­come Revered Guests restau­rant when he stops dead in his tracks. “They don’t like me here,” he says, frown­ing.

It’s not that he has panned the eatery. In fact, he gave it his high­est rat­ing. Rather, what has an­noyed the staff here is the way St. Cav­ish judges the quin­tes­sen­tial Shang­hai snack: soup dumplings known as xiao long bao.

On his last visit to Wel­come Revered Guests, he or­dered nine bas­kets of the hand­made dumplings, then spent the next hour an­a­lyz­ing them like a lab tech, us­ing an elec­tronic scale ac­cu­rate to 1/100th of a gram, dig­i­tal calipers ca­pa­ble of mea­sur­ing 1/100th of a mil­lime­ter (Mi­tu­toyo model 500-196-20), and a set of 140-mil­lime­ter shear­ing scis­sors.

Af­ter all his cal­cu­la­tions, only two dumplings went down his gul­let, while 52 went into a take­out box.

Sci­en­tific tools in hand, St. Cav­ish has probed the thin­ness of the dough, the vol­ume of the soup and the

weight of hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of pork meat­balls at dozens of restau­rants. He has even con­ducted a time study of how the struc­ture of xiao long bao changes upon leav­ing the steamer and start­ing to cool in a bid to de­ter­mine the ideal win­dow in which to devour the hot lit­tle pouches be­fore the skin thick­ens too much.

The num­bers have been crunched into what just may be the nerdi­est restau­rant guide ever, the Shang­hai Soup Dumpling In­dex. Wel­come Revered Guests, or Zun Ke Lai in Man­darin, landed on top.

Xiao long bao — eaten for break­fast, lunch, din­ner or even to sat­isfy the mid­night munchies — have be­come an ob­ject of ob­ses­sion among food­ies the world over; the Shang­hai gov­ern­ment has even listed them as one of 84 “pro­tected tra­di­tional trea­sures” of the city. De­bate over who makes the best rages from Shang­hai to Hong Kong to Taipei to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as any­one who has ever queued for hours at the Ar­ca­dia branch of Din Tai Fung can at­test.

St. Cav­ish, a 34-year-old na­tive of south Florida who worked as a chef in Miami and the Hamp­tons for a decade be­fore com­ing to China, is per­haps more qual­i­fied than most to at­test to the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the dumplings here at Zun Ke Lai. Since late 2013, he has worked his way across this sprawl­ing city of 24 mil­lion, pay­ing sur­prise vis­its to 52 pur­vey­ors of th­ese del­i­ca­cies on a quest for the ideal xiao long bao.

Some of the staff at Zun Ke Lai, though, have been more ir­ri­tated than grat­i­fied by St. Cav­ish’s at­ten­tion.

“They were [an­gry],” St. Cav­ish re­calls, glanc­ing through the front win­dow to see whether the older woman who had to hand-make his in­fu­ri­at­ing 54-dumpling or­der is be­hind the counter to­day. “When I later told her Zun Ke Lai came out on top of my in­dex, she was to­tally unim­pressed. She looked at me as if I had just told her I had a toe­nail prob­lem.”

The an­noy­ance of the Zun Ke Lai crew notwith­stand­ing, the Shang­hai Soup Dumpling In­dex is giv­ing St. Cav­ish 15 min­utes of fame in China.

It has been more than 30 years since Harold McGee brought a chemist’s eye to Amer­i­can home kitchens with his 1984 book, “On Food and Cooking,” and in re­cent years science-in­flected cooking shows such as “Good Eats with Al­ton Brown” have be­come ca­ble TV sta­ples in the U.S. But St. Cav­ish’s de­tailed dis­sec­tion of dumplings has been greeted as some­thing of a rev­e­la­tion in China, where food is gen­er­ally re­garded as art, not science.

News out­lets across China have re­ported on the in­dex, which St. Cav­ish has pub­lished in the form of a bilin­gual, sci­en­tific-look­ing fold­able chart (cost: $8), fea­tur­ing tongue-in-cheek aca­dem­i­cally pompous text along­side wonky tri­an­gle di­a­grams il­lus­trat­ing the pro­por­tion of fill­ing to skin, the thick­ness of the pas­try and de­vi­a­tion from av­er­age weight. The Guangzhou Daily has praised the “for­eigner’s metic­u­lous­ness and stan­dards, which can in­crease ef­fi­ciency and ac­cu­racy. We should all learn from it.”

The pa­per lauded his willpower to per­se­vere, de­spite dis­ap­prov­ing re­ac­tions from both restau­rant work­ers and cus­tomers.

“His suc­cess is not only the in­ven­tion of the for­mula to an­a­lyze the taste of xiao long bao; more im­por­tantly, he did what he wanted to do, he achieved his dreams through willpower, per­sis­tency and ded­i­ca­tion, and the ig­no­rance of ‘sav­ing face,’ ” the Daily said.

Be­fore com­ing to China, St. Cav­ish said, he didn’t have any par­tic­u­lar back­ground in science and he had never even eaten a xiao long bao. And even to­day, he says they’re not his fa­vorite dish, and he doesn’t cook them at home.

“I’m not ob­sessed with them,” he says, push­ing his thick black-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose. “But they hap­pen to be a ve­hi­cle for lots of other ideas I have about food and food writ­ing.”

St. Cav­ish says part of his mo­ti­va­tion was to find a “data-based de­fense” of Din Tai Fung dumplings, to which he’s long been par­tial, yet are frowned upon by some Shang­hai lo­cals as the in­fe­rior prod­uct of a Tai­wan-based in­ter­loper. (Din Tai Fung, which has out­lets the world over, in­clud­ing Shang­hai, is known for its strict ad­her­ence to its recipe, and its stan­dard 18 pleats in the dough — not one more, not one less.)

The de­fend-Din Tai Fung im­pe­tus was “petty,” but an­other, more lofty, aim, St. Cav­ish says, is to find a new way to talk about food.

“All my pre­vi­ous writ­ing about food was very sub­jec­tive,” says St. Cav­ish, who came to Shang­hai in 2005 to cook at the ShangriLa ho­tel and later turned to writ­ing, do­ing ar­ti­cles for lo­cal English-lan­guage mag­a­zines, copy-edit­ing for a real es­tate com­pany and giv­ing the oc­ca­sional food tour. “It was lib­er­at­ing to go to a restau­rant and not think: Do I like this or not like it, why or why not?”

Un­like other iconic Shang­hainese dishes, xiao long bao proved the op­ti­mal sub­ject for a num­bers-based ex­per­i­ment, St. Cav­ish says, be­cause three of the four stan­dards for a well-con­structed soup dumpling — thin skin, plen­ti­ful soup and abun­dant fill­ing — can be eas­ily mea­sured and ex­pressed in a math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula.

“There’s not a lot of foods like that. A crois­sant has just three in­gre­di­ents — but­ter, flour and salt — but as­sess­ing flak­i­ness is re­ally hard,” he says by way of ex­am­ple.

The in­dex is es­sen­tially mute on the fourth xiao long bao stan­dard, sa­vory meat. At­tempt­ing to mea­sure that, St. Cav­ish writes in the pam­phlet, “would have re­quired anal­y­sis by po­ten­tio­met­ric solid-state elec­trodes or near infrared-spec­troscopy, both be­yond the means of the re­searcher,” though he did dis­qual­ify any dumpling with an ex­ces­sive taste of MSG.

Mao Fuyu, the manager of Zun Ke Lai, agrees with St. Cav­ish that “taste is very hard to rank. If you have 100 peo­ple, they have 100 dif­fer­ent opin­ions; some like it sweet, some spicy. But soup and skin are the crit­i­cal fac­tors.”

Asked how Zun Ke Lai man­ages to make its skins so thin — an av­er­age of 0.72 mil­lime­ters — and its fill­ing so heavy (46% by weight), Mao replies, “That’s a trade se­cret.”

St. Cav­ish divides his 52 sur­veyed restau­rants into Class A (a score of 12 or above), B (6.75 or above) and C (be­low 6.75 — “to be avoided”). Most Class A dumplings, he dis­cov­ered, were at least 20% soup by weight. None had a skin thicker than 1.36 mil­lime­ters. Din Tai Fung ranked No. 7 on the in­dex with a score of 13.86; Zun Ke Lai’s 10-cent-apiece dumplings topped the charts with a 24.32 mark.

An­thony Zhao, who serves the dumplings at his two Shang­hai restau­rants, says the pop­u­lar­ity of Din Tai Fung’s pricey dumplings — nearly $1 each here — has cap­tured the at­ten­tion of Shang­hai chefs, who are now ex­per­i­ment­ing with colored skins and un­con­ven­tional fill­ings.

“Chefs are look­ing at more mid- to high-range ver­sions, cater­ing to the nou­veau riche,” he says.

Crystyl Mo, a Shang­haibased food writer and cor­re­spon­dent for Travel + Leisure mag­a­zine, calls the in­dex “an in­ter­est­ing way to as­sess the quin­tes­sen­tial Shang­hai food.”

“I don’t know if the most de­li­cious xiao long bao wins; maybe it’s the most tech­ni­cally per­fect one,” she says. “But peo­ple al­ways love talk­ing about xiao long bao, and this keeps the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing.”

St. Cav­ish freely ad­mits that on one hand, the in­dex is a “ridicu­lous project.”

“It’s a funny ex­per­i­ment; I don’t want peo­ple to take it too se­ri­ously,” he says, sit­ting in a booth at Zun Ke Lai, his mea­sur­ing para­pher­na­lia and three bas­kets of dumplings in front of him. “I’m not im­ply­ing that peo­ple should only cook by scales or mea­sure­ments … of course the hu­man fac­tor is very im­por­tant.”

But at the same time, he says, the in­dex gives restau­rant-go­ers — and him­self — a way to think more deeply and talk more pre­cisely about the ar­chi­tec­ture be­hind what makes a food sat­is­fy­ing or even de­li­cious.

“As a food writer, your re­spon­si­bil­ity is to ex­plain why you like or don’t like some­thing,” he says. “I’m not sure if xiao long bao has ben­e­fited from this anal­y­sis, but I’ve ben­e­fited.”

Nick May For The Times

CHRISTO­PHER St. Cav­ish demon­strates a dumpling’s droop. He also uses dig­i­tal calipers ca­pa­ble of mea­sur­ing 1/100th of a mil­lime­ter to check the skin’s thick­ness.

Pho­tog raphs by Nick May For The Times

SOME of the staff at the Zun Ke Lai restau­rant in Shang­hai have been more ir­ri­tated than grat­i­fied by Christo­pher St. Cav­ish’s at­ten­tion.

XIAO LONG BAO at Zun Ke Lai. The restau­rant ranked No. 1 on the Shang­hai Soup Dumpling In­dex.

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