From Hawaiian poke bowls and sushi burritos, New York’s latest culinary fad is the humble little bite-sized soup dumplings. The dumplings hit peak frenzy in 2016, when a restaurant in the East Village called Drunken Dumpling, served a monster-sized soup dumpling – which required customers to drink the soup in the dumpling through a straw, before they dug into the meat and the flour casing. Friends swapped articles on where to find the best soup dumplings. Chef-turned-food writer Cristopher St Cavish created The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, a scientific investigation into the quality of soup dumplings in Shanghai.
Soup dumplings or xiao long bao, originated in Nanxiang, a suburb in Shanghai. In the 1870s, they were sold from a small teahouse to visitors at the Chinese Guyi Garden. Traditionally, soup dumplings from Shanghai were eaten by first transferring the dumpling onto a wide soup spoon, making a small tear to let the soup flow out, sipping on this soup and then consuming the actual dumpling.
In India, these dumplings have been available at Ling’s Pavilion in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood since the 1980s. At this well-known establishment, the dumplings have been a part of the “real” menu (the one known to Ling’s most loyal customers, unlike the printed menu which is for everyone else). The availability of items on the real menu depends on the availability and the freshness of the meat and produce.
Ling’s third-generation owner, Baba Ling, prides himself on the restaurant’s authentic Chinese fare and has no patience for the “mirchi-pudina Chinese” which passes for Chinese food in large parts of India.
Dressed in a black safari suit, Ling sat in the Pavilion’s waiting area as he talked about how all the recipes prepared in his kitchen stuck to traditional flavours as a rule. “We have grandmother-style, traditional food here,” said Ling. “I picked up everything I know about cooking from watching my father in the kitchen. Our flavours have remained clean and simple. We have never paid a single paisa to advertise, it has all been word of mouth. We must be doing something right.”
On most mornings, Ling supervises the buying of the meat and the seafood himself. On these days, he is ready to pick out the produce at 5 am from the supplier he has conducted business with for nearly 70 years. Ling also tries to go to the church as often as possible.
Ever so often, Ling personally greets crowds of customers walking into the restaurant. On the day he spoke to Scroll.in, Ling’s Pavilion was hosting a group of 20 Japanese tourists, who had placed advance orders for large quantities of seafood. “The Japanese know fresh seafood better than anyone,” said Ling, while holding up a giant crab ready to be cooked. “They can just give it a little poke with their chopsticks and know instantly if the quality is good or not.”
Unlike traditional xiao long baos which use aspic, a jelly made using meat stock, mixed with minced meat to create the soup within the casing, Ling’s dumplings use the meat’s own water and fat content for the soup. “If you cover and let something cook, how does it cook?” asked Ling. “If it is vegetables, it cooks in its own water, if it is a fatty meat like pork, then it cooks in its own water and fat. What is essential here is to use good quality, fatty pork meat.” Dumplings are essentially a breakfast dish in China. Ling refuses to make chicken soup dumplings at his restaurant because chicken is a lean meat. “I don’t even like using mutton,” said Ling.
At the Pavilion, the dumplings are served in sets of two, with slivers of ginger resting on top of each mouthful. They are accompanied by a bottle of thin soy-flavoured sauce, Ling’s secret recipe. The casing is on the thicker side at Ling’s, as opposed to the more translucent dumplings. The flavour is delicate, meaty and savoury, with a hint of sweetness in the sauce and a sharp bite from the ginger.
By lunch-time, the queue outside Ling’s had only grown longer. Despite the heat, people were willing to wait for as long as it took to get to Ling’s fatty pork dishes. In India, soup dumplings rarely appear on the menu at Chinese eateries, which makes Ling’s real menu particularly sought after.
According to writer Vikram Doctor, who hosts the Real Food Podcast, the Nepali and Tibetan dumpling-style snack, momo, is more popular here. “I was hoping that the momo would move more in the direction of soup dumplings in flavour and concept, instead it seems to be moving towards tandoori and makhani momos,” said Doctor, referring to the momos which are first steamed and then smothered in a bright orange spice mix and cooked in tandoor, and sometimes topped with a heavy, buttery gravy. Doctor has never been to Shanghai, but has tried the soup dumplings in New York, where they are as ubiquitous, as the streetside momo in India.