Monthly Archives: October 2010

Shanghai Soup Dumplings… the perfect bite

If you’re a foodie, work with foodies, or hang out with cooks then no doubt you’ve played a round of “what would your last meal be?” This is where you go around the table and everyone talks about what they would like to eat right before they kick it. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t figured out my menu just yet. But I’m pretty certain it will contain ikura (salmon roe) with raw quail egg yolk. I think I’ll pencil that in as the appetizer…

My husband, on the other hand, has decided that he’d like his last meal to be made up entirely of Shanghai soup dumplings. Appetizer, entrée and dessert… all soup dumplings.

If you’ve never had Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao in Chinese) I feel very, very sorry for you. When done right they are the most perfect little bite. Dumplings filled with savory pork and delicate broth. It’s kind of like eating a perfect bowl of noodles in one bite. The dumpling wrapper should be soft with just the right amount of bite, like freshly made ravioli. The pork filling soft and flavorful with hints of ginger, sesame, scallion and garlic. But most important, the soup inside should be plentiful and delicate. The way to successfully eat these delicate creatures is to lift them out of their steaming baskets and gently place them on a Chinese soup spoon, pour a little black vinegar and a couple slices of thinly sliced ginger on top, then pop the entire thing in your mouth. If the chef got the balance just right then I swear it’s better than 50% of the sex you’ll have in your lifetime.

So, now that you’re reaching for your jacket and car keys and wondering where in the world you can find these heavenly morsels, here’s the bad news. Very few places in the world get it just right, and none of these appear to be in Washington DC.

I so badly wanted there to be a good place for dumplings here. I would even settle for semi-decent. But alas I still haven’t located any. Chinatown Express makes something they call soup dumplings but they’re really just steamed pork dumplings in the shape of soup dumplings. They are certainly tasty especially after dunking them in a mixture of chili oil, soy sauce and house-made ginger and scallion sauce. But don’t go ordering them expecting an out of body experience.

Last Sunday I headed over to Burma Road in Gaithersburg, MD. I had read about them serving some semi-decent soup dumplings. Well, the good news is they weren’t that bad. Bad news, I probably won’t be driving out there for a second helping.  They were pretty clunky, with muddled flavors. Too large to be eaten in one bite and the broth that spilled out congealed within 30 seconds. Proper dumplings are made aspic—cooled and naturally set meat stock.  But the rapid congealing of the Burma Road dumplings made me think that generous amounts of gelatin may have been used to cut corners.

  • 617 South Frederick Ave. Gaithersburg, MD 301.963.1429

Finally, please don’t listen to anyone who tells you to buy the frozen version at Grand Mart in Centreville, VA. The skins fall apart, there’s no soup inside, and the pork turns into a hard flavorless ball when steamed.

Okay, now for the good news. There are a few places that do it up right… especially if you’re willing to travel for them.

Joe’s Shanghai in New York City: To be honest I haven’t tried many places in NYC; whenever I’m up there I just head to Joe’s Shanghai restaurant where you will find a tasty, albeit slightly larger version. Priced well, a bamboo basket with six dumplings costs $6.50. I’ve introduced several friends to soup dumplings here and they’re all mad about them now. For me, the large size ruins the perfect bite concept. It’s recommended that you bite the top and slurp some of the soup out before taking the second bite. Practical? Yes, but for me that messes with the balance and temperature (you need to eat these dumplings hot). The flavor at Joe’s Shanghai is robust, the broth not particularly delicate but they do offer so-good-you could-drink-it, black vinegar. If you live in NYC or regularly visit, Joe’s Shanghai restaurant is a great place to get your soup dumpling fix.

  • 24 W 56 St. New York, New York (between 5th and 6th Ave) 212.333.3868
  • 9 Pell St. New York, New York 212.233.8888

Yank Sing in San Francisco: This is an obvious one. You’re in San Fran, of course there’s good food. For consistently decent dumplings head over to Yank Sing, a dim sum place with two locations in San Francisco. At $10 per order these are the most expensive ones that I’ve come across.  And the skins are a little too delicate so you run the risk of breaking the dumpling and losing the valuable broth before it makes it to your mouth. However, if I’m ever in the city by the Bay—even just for a couple hours—I’m probably flagging a cab and burning a good chunk of change on several orders.

  • 101 Spear St. San Francisco 415.957.9300
  • 49 Stevenson St. San Francisco 415.541.4949

Din Tai Fung: If you want to fill your mouth with those elusive soup dumplings that can compete with half of your sexual experiences then you are going to have to travel to Taiwan where the glorious restaurant empire of Din Tai Fung is located. Years of making these little bundles of goodness has resulted in the most balanced, soup/meat/skin ratio I’ve encountered. The broth is delicate, similar to a well executed consommé, with a clean but pronounced pork flavor. My husband and I spent a week in Taiwan last March and we ate at Din Tai Fung four times. Each order contained six dumplings and cost 130 NT (approximately $4). We seriously considered ripping up our return tickets and renting an apartment next to any one of their multiple branches. Maybe one day…

  • No. 218 (alley 216) Zhongxiao East Rd. Section 4 Taipei, Taiwan (02) 2721.7890

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks these dumplings are slices of heaven. Din Tai Fung now has restaurants all over the world, mainly in Asia but there is an outpost in Arcadia, Los Angeles, and one coming soon to Seattle. Since I don’t have the time or money for another transpacific flight, I’m doing the next best thing and heading to LA. Seriously, I’ve already bought my ticket.

In the meantime I’ll keep working on the menu for my final meal:

Appetizer – ikura nigiri topped with raw quail egg yolk and fresh wasabi

Entrée – Din Tai Fung steamed pork dumplings with black vinegar and ginger

Dessert – Still working on it, but I’m thinking it’ll include some of that other 50% that no soup dumpling can even come close to competing with.

Next Time You’re Craving Chinese Food in DC…

Where do you go when you have a hankering for good Chinese food? If you live in DC that’s a difficult question to answer. And when I hear your answer I can tell if you’ve ever traveled to China or at least whether or not you take your Chinese food seriously. Yes, I realize that that’s probably an unfair standard on which to judge someone but a girl’s gotta have some kind of yard stick, and that is just one of mine (and now you can start your judging of me).

In Taiwan, I remember people discussing the best way to make fried rice with the same seriousness you would find people debating national healthcare at any gathering in DC. You would think that a culturally diverse city like DC would have some pretty good Chinese food options right? Well you would be wrong. A colorful Chinese archway does not a Chinatown make. I don’t think any sober soul is going down to 7th and H Street to find authentic Chinese food these days … and if you are we will never be friends!

When I have a craving for authentic Chinese cooking I head up to Toronto, a city with some seriously tasty offerings. If I were to guess why this is the case I would say that Canada’s Asia-focused immigration policy results in a more dynamic and vibrant Chinese immigrant community. Many Chinese businessmen send their wives and children to Canada to acquire citizenship and attend universities. Because of this, the demand for authentic Chinese food is higher, and tolerance for Americanized Chinese food is pretty low. The result?—a better product. Simple economics applies to food as well.

Within minutes of arriving at my family’s home just outside Toronto I’m trying to make a reservation at Kenny’s Noodle, a neighborhood spot where the food is delicious and the staff thinks waiting on my mini army of a family is delightful rather than daunting. Fried rice comes in a bamboo basket where fluffy steamed egg whites act as a pillow for beautifully cooked shrimp (notice the exclusion of soy sauce; if I see soy sauce in fried rice that’s an immediate negative strike). Pork belly with pickled vegetables in a clay pot was a recent discovery and immediate hit. Garlic eggplant is served on a sizzling hotplate and cut tableside – this means the light sauce has a deep caramelized flavor and the eggplant is actually able to assert itself properly because it isn’t drowning in some overly starched, sickeningly sweet, unidentifiable brown sauce. Fried whole chicken is savory and moist inside, crisp outside. No doubt the result of a good brine bath, and a visit to the steamer prior to the fryer. Ummm, I wonder how much flights are this weekend….

But as much as we all fantasize about jumping in a private jet and flying to other cities just to eat good food I’m going to wager it’s not very realistic. (And if it is a reality for you then Helloooooo… I think we should get to know each other. We should become, as hip people say, BFFs). But in my simple world I have to find local spots to dine at, and so I am grateful to the wonderful person who introduced me to Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church, Virginia.

Ignore the name, the dishes are all Szechuan style rather than Cantonese. My first bite of their mapo doufu transported me back to Beijing where I was when I last tasted a really great version of this classic dish (a quick cheat sheet: doufu- Chinese, tofu- Japanese, bean curd– English). But even better is the fish and doufu with spicy sauce.

Soft doufu and lightly poached fish rest in a spicy chili sauce, topped with cilantro and crushed peanuts. The sauce is similar to mapo doufu in flavor, but because the doufu is stewed in much larger pieces it remains hot throughout the meal. Honestly, flavor-wise the fish could be removed and wouldn’t be missed but it does provide some textural contrast to the soft doufu.

The best bet when ordering a vegetable dish is to ask what they have in season. Snow pea shoots or watercress sautéed with garlic are both delicious options. Celery with wood ear mushrooms is reportedly a popular dish but I found the use of western celery, which is larger and blander, rather than the Chinese variety made this dish a pass for me.

Cold jellyfish salad, always a textural treat, is slippery and crunchy with a light sesame dressing and julienned cucumbers and carrots.

Cumin lamb is fabulous. Dusted in flour, cumin and pepper then quickly fried and tossed with sweet onions and bell peppers. The lamb is surprisingly tender with a bold almost smoky flavor, a credit to the toasted cumin and accompanying spices. Fried chicken with dry chili peppers is prepared in much the same way (sans cumin) and loaded up with sweet peppers, dried chilies and Szechuan peppercorns.

Ground pork with vermicelli is very similar to a dish I had several times at the Hunan style restaurant next to my hotel in Beijing last March. Vermicelli is tossed with ground pork, Chinese celery, ginger, scallions, chili oil and spices. Fennel seeds add a subtle anise flavor.

So next time you’ve got a craving for Chinese food instead of ordering from your usual delivery place and then spending the next hour complaining about how DC doesn’t have any good Chinese food, jump in your car and head over to Seven Corners. Yes, I realize that I’m asking you city folk to cross the roaring Potomac river and brave the wild Virginian countryside, but trust me Hong Kong Palace is worth the visit.

Hong Kong Palace 6387 Leesburg Pike Falls Church VA 22044

For all the food and travel lovers out there…

Dear Friends and Family,

Your encouragement, pressure and pestering have finally paid off. Welcome to yet another food blog. My hope is that Persimmons and Chestnuts will serve a dual purpose: one, to be a place where anyone with an interest in all things Asian can get a little taste of home. Second, this is for anyone who has ever sat in an office staring at your computer screen and thought to yourself “I love food, maybe I should quit my job and become a chef” … let the fun begin!