Dumpling rage, like road rage, strikes without warning. My first attack came in my mid-20s, while dining at Raku, a Washington, D.C., "pan-Asian" restaurant. I made the mistake of ordering something called Chinese dumplings. Out came a bamboo steamer containing what resembled aged marshmallows—dumplings cooked so long they were practically glued to the bottom of the container. Try as I might, I could not pry them loose, until one ripped in half, yielding a small meatball of dubious composition.
It was an outrage. To my friends' embarrassment, I stood up and shouted at our waiter:
"What are these?"
"Dumplings," he said.
"These," I said, "are not dumplings. The skin is too thick. The meat is too small. It's been cooked too long. The folding is done all wrong." My friends begged me to stop, and the manager threatened to call the police.
But my anger, if ill-directed, was justified. The Chinese dumpling is a magnificent product of the human imagination: At its best, it is charming in appearance, chewy and savory, and can trigger a head rush like sashimi or blue cheese. Such dumplings are not impossible to find in the United States. In fact, I once worked at a shop that produced such delicacies, called Hoo's Dumplings, in Charlottesville, Va. For the most part, however, the dumpling has arrived here in bastardized form, as similar to the real thing as Kraft Parmesan cheese is to its ancestors. That's why it's time for a dumpling revolution.
Nasty American versions of otherwise dignified foods are something of a national tradition. The Parmesan-in-a-can, mentioned above, is perhaps the best example—the greatest cheese in the world, reduced to sawdust. But I am an optimist. Look at American wine, coffee, and sushi, all of which have slowly climbed to palatability after decades of abuse. The American variations may never be exactly like their originals, but they have slowly become great in their own way.
If dumplings are to follow this path to made-in-America greatness, we must understand what plagues our dumplings. Let's start with the skin. As any serious aficionado will tell you, the skin makes or breaks a dumpling. It must be sticky, thin, and chewy at the same time—no easy feat. It's similar to the challenge of making perfect sushi rice or pasta.
Unfortunately, American Chinese and pan-Asian outlets are lazy and suffer badly from a "thick-skin" epidemic, resulting in dumplings that are tough and greasy. A thick skin can also lead to a soggy dumpling, which is the worst fate—imagine eating a sandwich that's been soaked in water.
The real problem with overthickness is that it destroys what I like to call the "magic ratio"—the science behind the art of dumplings. The magic ratio—a factor in foods from sushi to sandwiches—is the perfect ratio of protein to carbohydrate. The right ratio seems to activate some kind of pleasure center in the brain, bringing about calm and quiet elation. Some dumpling devotees describe dumplings, done right, as mildly orgasmic.
Thick or thin, there is no dumpling magic unless the skins are fresh. Most American restaurants don't bother with fresh skins because it requires specialized labor, akin to a sushi counter. But any dumpling joint worth its salt needs a chain gang of workers who roll the skins and fold the dumplings on-site, nonstop, since repeated kneading yields better skins. Some places boil the dough before folding the dumpling, and if you know anything about bagels, you'll know that's also the secret to the New York bagel.
Chinese people have been enjoying dumplings since at least the first century A.D. when, according to legend, Doctor Zhang Zhongjing invented them. Zhang, a Hippocrates-like figure in Chinese history, supposedly discovered dumplings while researching Chinese medicine. The dumplings, the story goes, were a cure for both typhoid and frostbitten ears, which is why dumplings resemble ears. Try not to think about that when you eat them.
Today, like American barbecue, nearly every region in China has its own dumpling, often reflecting regional character. (China has many dough-wrapped snacks that go by the English-word "dumplings," including jiao-zi, wontons, and sometimes bao, but here I'll call them all dumplings.) The Cantonese, clever by nature, are great dumpling innovators. They understand the importance of sticky skin better than any other region, which is why their shrimp dumplings (har gau) are justifiably famous. They are also credited with creating a giant variety of unusual dumplings for dim sum, including what are arguably the best vegetarian dumplings.
Shanghai is the source of China's most seductive dumpling: the soup-filled xiaolongbao, a dish that can easily become a lifelong obsession. (Here is an excellent survey of the best xiaolongbao places in Shanghai.) Unlike its sister dumplings, a xiaolongbao contains hot soup as well as a pork or crab filling, and it explodes when bitten. Many restaurants advise slurping out the soup before biting (in Shanghai, some places provide a straw), but personally, I eat xiaolongbao whole, despite the danger of injury. Oddly, some of the best xiaolongbao aren't in Shanghai but Taipei—most famously, Taipei's DinTaiFueng. As in other areas of the economy, the Taiwanese are selling the dumpling back to mainland China: There are now fancy branches in Shanghai and Beijing. There, the dumplings are in such demand that some people (like my aunt) reserve dumplings days in advance.
Northern China (especially Dongbei and Shangdong), bordering Korea, is a tough place where the people often resemble Koreans and share a similar intransigent personality. Their dumplings are direct and simple but satisfying—comfort dumplings. The skins are extra chewy, and some of the most famous use lamb and pumpkin as stuffing. Xian, China's ancient capital, claims to be the birthplace of the northern dumpling and offers tremendous dumpling variety. It is not unusual to enjoy a meal consisting of 100 types of dumplings, many folded to resemble animals.
The most decadent dumplings come, unsurprisingly, from Hong Kong. Recently, I sampled the "yellow-river crab supreme dumpling," the equivalent of Manhattan's $32 hamburger. Available only in May and June, the dumpling is made in front of you from female crabs whose eggs have been mixed with meat. When consumed, they create a flavor explosion comparable to good foie gras.
What hope is there for the American dumpling? The lessons learned from food battles previously fought is that great food only comes to a demanding audience—a public educated in the scams that sometimes pass for "ethnic food." For now, your best bet is to seek out tiny shops serving northern-style dumplings like the one I used to work in, boasting simple names like "Tasty Dumplings" or "Dumplings." Common in New York and slowly sprouting up across America, these shops often cater to Chinese migrant workers with five-dumplings-for-a-dollar deals.
In my days working at Hoo's, I used to march my co-workers to nearby Starbucks and Japanese restaurants, explaining that once the public gets the idea of quality, they pay more. I'm proud to say that I won a small prize for customer service, mainly on account of my English skills. But I honestly felt we were restoring the dumpling's tarnished reputation and changing the way Americans eat, one jiao-zi at a time.
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