Sunday, June 21, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Dumplings, Soup, and a Straw

My food entries here have been appallingly sporadic and will be out of order due to the recent upheavals of this existence masquerading as a life as I attempt to find myself in this limbo between a job, home, and/or plan, but it's been a while since I've divulged in my greatest passion on this blog -- discussing food finds and adventures. This entry marks the very first of my backward glances to the insanity of my honeymoon (a lot of travel on paper is a lot of travel; but in real life, it becomes a LOT a lot of travel ...) and as such, the post is dedicated expressly to Gabe Martin-Dempsey, one of my favorite lunch buddies in New Orleans and one of my most missed as the rain continues to fall from dreary gray skies in Long Island and as plans continue being made for the same franchised restaurants on the big fish, regardless of lack of art. (However, I will say that I've found myself satisfactorily stuffed several times already on bagels and Chinese food, and have had one slice of pizza.)

The topic of interest here begins in the city of Shanghai, and enchantingly futuristic city of glamorous lights, beautiful waters, and -- wonder of wonders -- the first place (as the second to last leg of our extensive monthlong journey) we encountered dim sum/yum cha food of any kind. Literally meaning "little heart" and "to take tea" respectively, bamboo steamers of savory foods in bite-sized portions, this Cantonese sensation is one of my favorite dining experiences to date, the complexity of flavors and inventiveness of dishes as well thought out as many a fine French dishes but wholly different in style.

Now what does all of this have to do with dumplings, soups, and straws?

Plenty, since we're dwelling on Shanghai. This cosmopolitan international port city is famous for many things -- sailors, ship-jackings (the expression "Shanghai'd" ring a bell?), its Western-style International settlement, banking and finance, among many other things -- but for the sake of simplicity, its most well-known gastronomic contribution is a novel invention dear to Gabe's heart, combining the wonderful concepts of puffy steamed buns of a mantou nature, clear broth, and carefree sipping. This curiosity I'm referencing is the intriguing soup dumpling, or in its native soup-scalded tongue, xiao long bao.

A chubby round bun made of the mildly sweet white puffy bread that appears throughout China, perhaps most commonly found in char siu bao (the famous Cantonese contribution that's made its way to Vietnam and America, sweet barbequed pork buns), it's a neat little package with a delightfully swirled top with a round hole seemingly placed for allowing steam to escape, until you observe others eating it. It comes in various sizes, depending on the vendor you choose and what purpose you wnat this particular dumpling for. Large is good for a full meal on the go, since its consumption is satisfying in its multi-step process; medium makes a good snack; the small, which I experienced at dinner later that night, is a tantalizing classic dim sum proportioned tidbit.

Okay, so it looks like a tidy bun. But here's where the rest of the stuff comes in -- the xiao long bao is ACTUALLY a Chinese version of a soup bowl! However, that's not to say that you can cut open the top and start spooning out the contents, since you have to remember, its prime identity is as a stuffed bun or dumpling, meaning the center will be filled with something a bit more substantial than just soup. That's right -- there's a nice, big, fat hunk of ground, seasoned, richly flavored MEAT dead center. Generally succulent, fresh pork (being the most popular and common meat in the country due to its accessibility) takes the center stage in the bun, soaking in the oily broth nestled in the heart of the bread, erupting into hot flavor as you bite into the dumpling. But ... I don't recommend biting right into it, as you'll see.

The differences don't end there from your typical bread bowl, either. Take a look at the picture to the left. Do you see anything odd or interesting, out of the ordinary and unexpected? Poking out of the top of the bread in the steamer. Yeah, right there. Well, that's no chopstick -- it's a straw. A wide-mouthed, white plastic, colorfully-striped straw.

And whatever is it for?

For drinking soup!

From my understanding, the soup gets where and how it is in two steps: broth is made and frozen, then placed in the dough as an ice cube (thanks, Gabe!) with the raw meat mixture before the bun/dumpling is steamed. As the dough rises and the steam cooks it inside out, the frozen broth melts and begins to take on the flavor of the meat slowly stewing and simmering inside the Shanghai soup dumpling. Oils escape from the pork and adds a nice element of slick, greasy richness, and turns a simple broth into a uniquely flavored concoction, while the meat, cooking in the soup, takes on the elements from and holds on to the moisture necessary to keep the meat tender and tasty. A truly symbiotic relationship.

Directions to eat? Sip, slurp, chomp, and savor ... but I wouldn't recommend doing it out of order, since food can hurt sometimes, and the pressure within the bun can cause an eruption of juices that can cause a great deal of damage.

Yes, Gabe -- this was definitely as good and interesting as it seems on paper. Another trip to Shanghai, anyone?