28 October 2016
Good soup is key to a Class A xiao long bao. Photo:
Good soup is key to a Class A xiao long bao. Photo:

The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index

For soup dumpling lovers everywhere, XLB is short for xiao long bao, a type of steamed bun associated with Shanghai.

By whatever name you call it, they’re eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even to satisfy the midnight munchies, and have become an object of obsession among foodies the world over.

The Shanghai government has even listed them as one of 84 “protected traditional treasures” of the city, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Still, the debate over who makes the best rages from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Taipei to California.

Enter Christopher St. Cavish, an American chef and food writer who has lived in Shanghai for the last 10 years.

St. Cavish recently became a public figure on WeChat when he teamed up with his friend Ailadi Cortelleti to create the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, a scientific study rating Shanghai soup dumplings from 52 restaurants.

The study, which has been read more than 100,000 times, systematically rated the dumplings based on criteria including the ingredients in the filling, the soup and thickness of the skin, chinaSMACK, a website that reports on what Chinese internet users are looking at and discussing online, said.

St. Cavish told the Los Angeles Times he divides his 52 surveyed restaurants into Class A (a score of 12 or above), B (6.75 or above) and C (below 6.75 — “to be avoided”).

Most Class A dumplings, he discovered, were at least 20 percent soup by weight. None had a skin thicker than 1.36 millimeters.

News outlets across China have reported on the index, which St. Cavish has published in the form of a bilingual, scientific-looking foldable chart (cost: US$8), featuring tongue-in-cheek academically pompous text alongside wonky triangle diagrams illustrating the proportion of filling to skin, the thickness of the pastry and deviation from average weight.

The Guangzhou Daily has praised the “foreigner’s meticulousness and standards, which can increase efficiency and accuracy. We should all learn from it”.

Which brings me to my point.

If the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index points you toward the ideal xiao long bao, why can’t it be the model for similar indexes that work for perennial comfort food favorites like congee, scallion pancakes and stinky tofu?

Take, for example, congee — the Chinese version of chicken soup (otherwise known as nature’s penicillin for all that ails you).

Before loading it up with all the fixings (a random mix of scallions, ginger, peanuts and cilantro, thank you), I’ve had plain rice congee thick as oatmeal or watery as, well, water.

I’ve also had it velvety smooth or as chunky as dog food looks.

With the hypothetical Congee Index, I can have congee that’s both thick and smooth.

(I like it so thick I can stand a spoon up in it, and I want it to go down like warm butterscotch pudding.)

Alas, I know it’s just a crazy, impractical dream to have handy indexes for all of your ideal Chinese dishes.

But can’t we at least have a simple eatery guide that tells us how sick we’re going to get or if we’re going to die after eating there?

The Kwong Gutter Oil Index (named after me because I thought of it first) would help us stay away from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that use too much cooking oil made from recycled garbage.

Restaurants and street vendors would be divided into Class A (uses “normal” cooking oil; may cause diarrhea and abdominal pain but okay for children), B (cooking oil made from discarded animal parts, animal fat and skins, internal organs and expired or otherwise low-quality meat; toxic and will definitely lead to stomach and/or liver cancer) and C (cooking oil made from recycled waste oil collected from sources such as restaurant fryers, sewer drains, grease traps and slaughterhouse waste; to be avoided).

Good luck eating your fried pork buns (shengjian bao), pork chop with rice cakes (pai gu nian gao) and scallion pancakes (cong you bing).

Oh, yes, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what St. Cavish, the chef-turned-food-writer-turned-XLB-scientist, thought of the xiao long bao at the world-famous global Chinese restaurant Din Tai Fung.

He gave it an A with a score of 13.86, though it was ranked only seventh on his list.

(Don’t shoot the messenger.)

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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