A tender wrapper filled with rich, piping-hot soup and a nugget of pork and crab — when it comes to surprise liquid centers, Starburst GummiBursts have nothing on soup dumplings. But this Shanghai specialty — xiao long bao — comes with physical dangers (getting scalded) and emotional ones (the trauma that occurs when the precious liquid pours out anywhere but in your mouth). You also risk offending the chef by spilling the contents of a dumpling that can take two or three days to make. Chinese food authority Ed Schoenfeld, co-owner of NYC's two RedFarm restaurants and the new Decoy, admits, "If you see my belly, you'll see I'm too experienced at eating soup dumplings, but even for me it's very easy to tear one." Schoenfeld says well-made dumplings (like the ones chef Joe Ng makes at RedFarm, of course) are especially likely to tear because they have thinner skins than less expertly made ones. Below, he shares his tips for minimizing the hazards so you can enjoy your meal with the roof of your mouth and your pride intact.
Don't Grab or Poke
When a bamboo basket of soup dumplings arrives at your table, resist the urge to plunge right in with your chopsticks, roughly handling or poking the dumplings. "The single biggest screwup comes from removing the dumplings from the basket," says Schoenfeld. "If it tears, all the juice vacates before it gets in your mouth." He advises removing the lid from the basket, then letting the dumplings sit for 90 seconds to two minutes to let them cool a bit, which allows the dumpling skin to harden slightly. "Often that's the difference between it tearing and not tearing." Then, use your chopsticks (or your fingers if you aren't a chopsticks pro) to grasp a dumpling by the knot on top — this is the thickest part of the dumpling and thus less likely to tear. "Pick up the dumpling very, very, very slowly and gently," particularly if it is sticking to another dumpling in the basket, because, "then you could do real damage because you could mess up two at once."
Don't Rip, Jab, or Chomp
If the dumpling has paper on the bottom, as you lift the dumpling with one hand, use your other hand to gently peel the paper off with your thumb and index finger. Once the paper is off, place the dumpling in your spoon, knot side up. The hardest part is now over. "Once it's in your spoon, you've succeeded," says Schoenfeld. Now comes the actual eating. But you want to proceed carefully here too: "Steam is hotter than boiling water," cautions Schoenfeld, so unless you want a "rude mouthful," don't put the whole thing in your mouth or chomp down on the side of the dumpling and slurp out the soup. Instead, bite off the knot and allow the steam to escape, then suck the broth out.
Don't Drown the Dumpling
Did you notice that we have been ignoring that dish of ginger-black-vinegar-soy sauce that's probably been served with your dumplings? That's because you should have been ignoring it until now too. "I recommend drinking the broth straight up," Schoenfeld advises, underlining the "unbelievable amount of work" that goes into making it (at RedFarm, the process involves multiple boilings, rinsings, skimmings and grindings of pork skin to extract the gelatin that makes the broth solid at room temperature). Dipping a soup-filled dumpling in sauce is also one more opportunity to spring a leak. Instead, wait until you're left with a brothless dumpling skin with a little bit of solid filling inside. Use your chopsticks to pick up some of the ginger with vinegar clinging to it, and put that on the dumpling before eating it. And while a "proper Chinese lady from Shanghai would probably use chopsticks," if you want to just spoon the dumpling straight into your mouth at this point, go for it. "I defer to practicality," says Schoenfeld.