Like many of the culinary love stories that preceded this one, my first memory of Shanghai soup dumplings is set in a long-forgotten restaurant in a tiny corner of my hometown. My mother and sister, sensing a golden opportunity to play me for a fool, ordered a basket of dumplings and let me eat the first one. When I bit into that perfectly onion domed parcel, hot broth poured down my chin and onto my lap. I hadn’t had my face melted off like that since my ill-advised death metal phase. Dumplings: 1, Me: 0.
I’ve had soup dumplings numerous times since then, but the embarrassment I felt still flares up like an unwelcome rash every time that bamboo basket hits my table. Strangely enough, I had forgotten the whole ordeal by inadvertently avoiding the dish, which isn’t at all common in the Chinatown-less Twin Cities. At the new-ish Szechuan Spice in Uptown Minneapolis, the dumplings finally caught up with me under a catchy alias: “Shanghai Mini Juicy Buns.”
(And for those Chinese cuisine sticklers out there, yes, “dumplings” is a misnomer: The closed-top design of the dish puts it squarely into “bun” territory. Chinese dumplings, or jiaozi, are set apart by their horizontal seams. So Szechuan Spice and Tea House, its cousin in St. Paul, are actually using more accurate nomenclature. For some reason — perhaps it’s our old friend, American ignorance — the dish is more commonly referred to as a dumpling here.)
For the uninitiated, Shanghai soup dumplings (also known as xiaolongbao) are generally golf ball-sized buns that contain a filling of pork, crab, or both along with about a tablespoon of broth. They originated, logically, in Shanghai, a city on the eastern coast of mainland China and have become a very popular dim sum dish in the United States in the past 20 years. Here, the dish is served in the typical way, steamed and presented in a basket.
Now here’s where you should pay attention to avoid the soup dumpling tragedy that has befallen many first timers. The proper protocol for eating one of these is to use a spoon to carefully pick one up. Bite off the top of the bun and blow into the hole to cool off the soup. At this point, you may certainly pour some of the accompanying gingered rice vinegar into it, but you should probably try it unadorned your first time. Once the broth is sufficiently cooled, suck it out and eat the whole thing.
At Szechuan Spice, the “juicy buns” come in either the pork or crab variety ($6.50-$8.00). As far as their rendition goes, it’s absolutely addicting. The wrapping is perfectly tender, with the slightest bit of tackiness, and the meat fillings are minced so fine that they surrender easily to even the most ambivalent bite. The pork filling was actually much more flavorful than the crab, but the broth in each was consistently silky-smooth and rich-tasting. At $6.50 for 6 dumplings, I could certainly see myself biking through sleet and snow for a takeout order, despite the very likely probability of their bursting in my backpack like little soupy grenades.
Much of the non-gustatory appeal of the dish lies in its mystery: How do they get the soup in the dumplings in the first place? The injection hypothesis makes a little bit of logical sense when one considers the shape of the buns. (It would also look pretty cool.) But the truth is even cooler. The key to this mystery lies in the natural gelatinizing properties of meat stock!
In addition to the meaty filling, uncooked dumplings already contain the broth in gelatinous form. This allows the cook to neatly shape and close the dumplings. As the dish is steamed, the heat melts the gelatin back into liquid. A good cook will be able to make a wrapper that walks the line between a delicate texture and a tough constitution that can hold the soup without breaking.
Szechuan Spice’s Shanghai Mini Juicy Buns are perfect for the diner who loves their dim sum served with a side of danger.
Szechuan Spice is located at 3016 Lyndale Ave S in Minneapolis. Their hours are Sun-Thurs: 11am-10pm and Fri & Sat: 11am-11pm.