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#75 Dumplings

Posted May 19th, 2008 by timwu · 28 Comments

Dumplings. Via 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.

via,0.jpgIf 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.

via 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.

By Professor Tim Wu, Originally published in Slate Magazine

Tags: Activities · Chinese · Customs · Food & Beverage · People

28 responses so far ↓

  • 1 hrhkat // May 19, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    I have yet to read the whole thing since im in a hurry, but i want to know if you really did get mad at the manager for messing up the dumpling? lmao if you did that is sooo asian of you.

  • 2 fallenangels // May 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    WOW. So POETIC and about DUMPLINGS too-.- You sound like my mom. My mom has no probs with telling people what’s on her finicky mind. Last time there were stuff in her seafood platter (said it was sand but I didn’t taste any in mine…. must be her super asian mom senses) and in broken English she complained to a waiter right before we left (because I begged her to do it at the end). We got a free meal for the next visit, lol.

  • 3 Peter // May 19, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I always wonder the same thing too

  • 4 hrhkat // May 20, 2008 at 6:07 am

    I just read the whole thing, it was simply great. I can actually say that ive had the perfect dumplings you have talked about. I was lucky, very lucky, to live next door to an Asian family while growing up. The mother made the most delicious angel hair noodles, like real angel hair, you know the almost invisible kind, and the best dumplings ive ever had. The skin was so fine, yet strong, and sticky, it was almost like tissue paper it was that thin. Sadly we moved away, but ive yet to find a good enough place to compare them too, and I live in LA. I know a few great sushi places to compare her sushi too, but not dumplings. I do believe if a chain of chinese restaurants with high quality food came out, that people would pay for extra for the better food. I thought about opening up a small drive-through vegetarian sushi restaurant in LA, with high quality sushi, and biodegradable packaging, its a brilliant idea, because there are loads of vegetarians in LA, and people out here buy anything that is biodegradable, even though im not vegetarian. I would make it semi-expensive, with brown rice paper bags, with 5 bamboo shutes on the bag colored red, or gold i havent decided. Anyway im rambling, its a white person thing. Oh and you are spot on about the parmesan in the can, I used to love it, until about 7 years when i discovered REAL parmesan cheese, and now i use my lemon zester to scrape tiny thin little pieces of cheese on my raviolis. Use your zester on cheeses, trust me you will never go back to a cheese grader.

  • 5 YvesPaul // May 20, 2008 at 11:44 am

    There is a soup filled dumpling other than XiaoLongBao and it is pretty wonderful as well. Although it’s getting tougher and tougher to get quality chef to make them and some just got so lazy and serve it in a bowl and put the soup outside of the dumpling which really defeats the purpose. Japanese people popularized the gyoza, which is pretty nice as well. Although growing up Chinese, I have a very clear separations on baos and dumplings, and wouldn’t put wontons in the same category either.

    Personally, I have never experienced dumpling rage, although there are quite a few of disappointments. Although the Americans always thinks bigger is better, it is a horrible thing when dumplings and wontons came in thick skins. It is so against my Chinese values.

  • 6 Tony // May 20, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Wei-Chuan produces some surprisingly good xiaolongbao but they call them mini buns. Not quite restaurant quality but good enough that I buy 4 or 5 bags at a time when I visit the Asian supermarket. Their regular dumplings are also quite good.

  • 7 Tim Wu // May 20, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I agree that bao and jiao are different but how could i write an article about dumplings and not xiao lung bao

  • 8 YvesPaul // May 20, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Of course, you’re right. Very, very well written, in fact like Fallenangels, I find it very poetic. I love food myself, hope you’ll write more articles about food. My favorite cuisine is Shanghainese. My favorite dish in that cuisine is chicken with green bean noodles, another one is sticky rice wrapped around fried dough, dry fluffy pork and pickled vegetables. Soy milk (col/hot/sweet/salty) vermicelli soup and red bean pancakes are also superb.

    Oh, would anyone write about vitasoy or boxed drinks?

  • 9 hrhkat // May 20, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    I have a question, if you could a different race for 1 day what would it be?…I think I would want to black…I first thought asian, but then people would expect to much of me.

    is that joke racist? i hear it today and i couldnt figure it out, i guess it could be a compliment to asian people, but then it could also put down black people, even though its not saying that people expect less for them….

  • 10 Owen // Jun 3, 2008 at 11:37 am

    You know that there is a Din Tai Fung outside of LA right? Best soup dumplings I’ve ever had.

  • 11 solong // Jun 7, 2008 at 11:36 am

    I love my mom’s home made dumplings <33 All of the ones that I’ve had in restaurants have never been any good… blegh!

  • 12 DA // Jun 16, 2008 at 12:49 am


  • 13 Ying // Jul 5, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    There’s actually a REALLY good restaurant in Flushing, New York that makes excellent xiaolongbao. I think it’s called Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant and the dumplings are DELICIOUS. (I think they opened up another one in Manhattan.) I know some people who go there just to eat the xiaolongbao and nothing else.

  • 14 loulou // Jul 5, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    get a group of people together and make dumplings. doesn’t required any high level cooking skills. everyone brings their own knife, board, apron, hairnet (!) and chop chop chop – in a couple of hours, you will have hundreds of dumplings that can be cooked and devoured. i’ve been doing this for 3 years and it’s a blast. i must admit, i buy the dumpling skins. I read that if you make your own, the secret is to add boiling water and to knead alot. my blog has a couple of recipes that you are free to use. happy dumpling making.

  • 15 gian // Jul 6, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    The Din Tai Fung is in Arcadia, CA on Baldwin and Duarte next to Life Plaza. The best XLB I’ve had was in San Gabriel on Valley Blvd. in a plaza called Mei Long Village.

  • 16 Richard // Jul 17, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Re: Comment #12 by DA, June 16, 2008, the “long” character in “xiaolongbao” does not translate into dragon although it sounds alike. With the “vegetation” prefix, it means enclosure, cage, here it means the steamer.
    “Bunlettes in a steamer” is probably a closer literal translation for “Xiaolongbao” if the “xiao” (meaning small) applies to the buns, and ” a small steamer of buns” if it applies to the steamer.
    “Dumplings” as a general term for all the variety of steamed, boiled, pan-fried, deep-fried, disc-shaped, crescent-moon shaped edibles doesn’t do the food justice.
    Maybe the connoisseurs, after a particularly soul-satisfying session with their favorite version of “dumpling” will apply the same standard to demand for an apt translation. We’d all benefit from that.

  • 17 henri // Aug 7, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    i’v heard people say they dion’t like dumplings and i nevery understood why untill i read this post.

    Thats EVIL!, replacing the amazingness of a ‘true’ dumpling with THAT! evil

  • 18 AsianKitty_ox // Aug 27, 2008 at 6:40 am


  • 19 M J // Sep 18, 2008 at 10:06 am

    where can i get the best dumplings in L.A?

  • 20 Bianca Xue // Dec 3, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I think that there is some sort of misunderstanding. It probably was wrong of the store to call it “dumplings” but it is like a dumpling in it’s own right. In Chinese, we call it bao zi (饱子), it’s just that there is no word in English to describe it. And sometimes, when I have it for lunch, my foreigner friends ask me what I have (“Is it like, some sort of sumo dumpling?”) . And I can only say, yeah…it is. Because what else can I say?

  • 21 How // Dec 28, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    We had Chinese for our Christmas dinner and one of the courses was dumplings and these were lovely!

  • 22 Ryan Byrd’s Ramblings » Asian Persuasion // Mar 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm

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  • 23 anonymous // Mar 31, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Wow you are a douch3b@g. Stop being such a stuck up sn0b about dumplings. If I was your friend I’d stopped a long time ago due to your whiney b1tch1ng. Lose teh v@gin@ already.

  • 24 yao // May 2, 2009 at 12:17 am

    the best xiao long bao in the world is in shanghai at cheng huang miao. i don’t think the person reviewing xiao long bao (in the link provided) actually went there. either that, or the stuff they serve in the expensive area is not the same as the one with a massive line. i can say for a fact that none of the “long” in the picture are taken from the crowded place in cheng huang miao. the xiao long bao in the images look completely different from the real thing served in the crowded restaurant.

  • 25 Frugal Dinners: Making Dumplings | fabulously fru-girl // Jan 30, 2011 at 10:07 am

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  • 28 ilovehorseyrides // Sep 26, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Americans call them “potstickers”. Asians call them “dumplings”

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