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Dumplingus Extremis

by Harley Spiller

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 23 and 24

A reporter from www.TheMorningNews.Org contacted me to see if I would lead him to one of my favorite Chinatown restaurants in Manhattan. When he offered a fifty dollar budget to pay for the meal, I smirked to myself. It would take me a week to spend that much money in Chinatown. So I upped his ante by offering to take him on an extreme dumpling-athon. “Let’s go taste the very best dumplings at eight different restaurants in one lunchtime,” I countered. He accepted, albeit with some trepidation about his ability to complete such a marathon.

By the time our appointed date rolled around, SARS and the debilitating rumors about the new disease, had swept through the world. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s trip to the Chinatown restaurant called Tart and Tasty and the proclamation that we run a greater risk of being hit by a car than SARS, some were avoiding Chinatown altogether. Thus, the plan to spread our meal ticket among eight restaurants took on new importance.

We were to meet at eleven in the morning at 31 Division Street’s Dim Sum House, a plebian tea-luncheonette that was especially popular with the elderly and after-church sets. Their weekends-only dumpling, suey jing bao, a round, twisted-top dumpling with an opening like Cyclops’ eye, contained a little bit of pork, shrimp, and lots of mystery deliciousness. They were usually sold out before noon. This time, though, they had been all dressed up in new marble clothes. The old standby had turned, seemingly overnight, into a fancy Hong Kong style seafood house. It was not even open, and it was eleven in the morning; the old place was in full swing earlier, usually by eight. One of the old-time waiters, now dressed in a new maroon vest, recognized me and my glum look. He said, simply, “no more." Luckily, the reporter was a bit late so I had time to gather my wits and my spirits and pick a replacement starter for the big chow-down.

Min Jiang is a Fujian restaurant on East Broadway just north of the Manhattan Bridge. It is a working class spot with more space reserved for food than patrons. You might not think twice about the steam table dishes in the front window, as they look very much like all the other Fujian offerings that flood the area around Eldridge Street and East Broadway. The affable owner/chef, however, is very talented and his superb Hong Kong style seafood dishes are about one-third less than the price of equivalent dishes in fancy restaurants.

Min Jiang’s handmade suey jao are plucked from a plastic freezer bag. They take about eight minutes to reappear on a plastic platter with a specially blended dip of soy, vinegar and spices. Loaded with fat wads of bright green chives and just a few crumbs of pork, the skins are at once firm and soft. They are perfectly slippery bundles of strong flavor. We nail the plate almost immediately, the taste mightily impresses the mild-mannered reporter.

Next, it is off to a northern Chinese snack shop in the basement of the older of two shopping malls directly below the Manhattan Bridge. Shop is a nice word for this place that has no English name. Rickety dining tables and dumpling assembly operations spread out in the subterranean hallways. It was only after visiting China, specifically Shanghai, that I had the nerve to try this skin-of-the-teeth operation. The place is so Chinese that there is not a word in English and ordering by us round-eyes can only be accomplished by pointing.

Although they have several types of dumplings, I have found better versions at other locations. That said, we have the sesame noodles, which are nothing like the peanut-buttered glop of Chinese American fame. They are light, redolent of scallion, and they come with a bowl of clear fishy broth on the side. The place is almost always busy with homesick northern Chinese natives seeking the buck-fifty pasta and other reminders of their motherland. We spot a snack coming fresh out of the fryer and took a flyer on the burger-sized doughnuts covered with black and white sesame seeds. They are hot, crispy, and loaded with pungent mustard greens that actually tasted like mustard. Scrumptious stuff.

Next it is time for the ultimate pork and chive fried wonder, the gwor tip proffered at Dumpling House on Eldridge Street one block and a half below Delancey Street. Gwor tip are equally good at their newer and larger sister (literally) restaurant, Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry south of Bayard. You may have seen it reviewed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 9(4) in the 'Dollar’s for Dumplings' article on page 8 of that issue. The gorgeous and gregarious owner, Vanessa, greeted us and said she had seen me on TV. “I called my sister to tell her,” she said, but “before I could say anything she said she had seen you too.”

I had been unwittingly filmed for a SARS story the week before while I was eating the special fish dumpling soup at Bayard Street’s best broth maker, Bo Ky Pho. I pretended to put a mask on my mouth and leave. She laughed. We agreed that we can not hide from the invisible unknown and had both chosen to simply go ahead with our lives.

Vanessa knows her customers and sometimes adjusts recipes to make them more health-conscious. For example, her sheng jeng bao, traditionally made with pork and just a little vegetable, have been altered to include black mushrooms and crispy water chestnuts in lieu of some pork. They have vegetarian dumplings, superb wontons, and sometimes a daily special like a northern delicacy I had never encountered, ground beef in a doughy bun with a couple of tablespoons of fresh dill.

The mainstay of Dumpling House, though, are the fried pork and chive half-moons that develop a lacy golden brown crust from the half-fried half-steamed cooking method. Cooks preside over flat-bottomed woks, constantly turning, adjusting, tilting, and adding water and oil until the top of the skin glistens translucently. Everyone, including fancy tour magazines from California, Toronto, and beyond proclaim Vanessa ‘the queen of the dumpling.’ At just one dollar for five of them, there are quite a few frugal foodie folk who would like to nominate her for President.

We are starting to feel a bit full, but the walks between restaurants are restorative. By the time we get to Yogee Noodle, on Christie Street, we are raring to go. Recently renovated, this is the cleanest and one of the prettiest restaurants in Chinatown. Main dishes like their paper-baked fried rice with chicken, squid and dried scallop are truly world class. Their fried rice, fried broad rice noodle, and beef soup are as good as it gets. We come for dumplings though, and the only dumplings on the menu besides wonton, are fu chow yan pi won ton, which are a variety of wonton using fish inside their dumpling wrappers. They come in soup and are tightly packed with shrimp, pork, and a little green vegetable. The skin is translucent but firm, the faint fish flavor unveils itself slowly as we make these bouncing bundles disappear.

A dumpling tour would not be complete without the latest Shanghai export craze, shao lung bao, pork-and-crab dumplings with soup inside their wrappers. These delicate treats must be worried open with a slight nibble. If not, the diner will be scalded with the boiling potion within their just firm enough skins. Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street is the leading soup dumpling maker in Manhattan, but I think that his place across the river in Elmhurst, Queens is consistently the best of his several locations. The constant line out front somehow gives the staff license to be rude and bum’s-rush the clientele. We believe the glorious soup pockets worth the hassle.

The plan next called for a visit to Shanghai Snack Bar on Elizabeth Street near the Canal Arcade. However, we are starting to fill up and I was not sure their larger and porkier suey jow could compete with the delicacy of Min Jiang’s. We shelve Shanghai Snack Bar for another day and head to Tart-n-Tasty, a Sweet and Tart café downstairs on Mott Street just below Canal Street. Their specialties are tong shui or health tonic soups, but their watercress dumplings are standouts, too. The long, wrinkled tubes come in clear broth and one can see the pink shrimp and bright green western vegetables within. They are as tightly packed as the yan pi dumplings at Yogee. You really use your molars to break into these firm delectable delights that are clean and healthy tasting, almost like California cuisine.

For sure, we are already past full, but there is one more restaurant to go. I want the reporter to experience a particularly favored loci of dumplings, the five hundred seat dim sum parlor now known as New Oriental Pearl at 105 Mott Street. We had come for the excellent yu chi gao, shark’s fin dumplings. Alas, too many early birds beat us to the punch. They are sold out. We settle for lots of tea and an odd dessert, leung guar gao, or bitter melon balls. These deep-fried bright-green doughnuts are made with fresh bitter melon and a filling of black beans and peanuts. They taste uncannily like dark chocolate but ooze a bit too much oil for some folks. New Oriental Pearl also sells a chicken dumpling with slivers of black mushroom that is unusual and exceptional. Unfortunately, we are too stuffed to consider another bite. Bow La, we learn, is the Cantonese term for full.

The reporter decides to walk back home--to Brooklyn. I have a few cold lagers that afternoon and can only muster a salad for dinner. This extreme dining technique is gluttonous to be sure, but fun. We call it ‘dumplingus extremis,’ enlightening too, pitting these house specials against each other in such a limited time.

The foods were all winners. I am up for the challenge again, although perhaps only once every couple of months. Any takers? Or would you prefer to try out some of the Russian dumplings in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn? The Village Voice food reporter Robert Sietsema’s word has it that henkali from Georgia are dead ringers for Shanghai soup dumplings, and that is not all. We can understand why; there are many of China’s neighbors to the North who offer a vast assortment of dumplings. Naming a few includes Ukrainian variniki, Russian pelmeni and piroshki, Uzbekistani manti or surpa, and more. Anyone care to set a date? If so, please contact me at inspector-collector@nyc. rr. com
The author wishes to thank Rosecrans Baldwin, Rachel B. Knowles, and all the unsung flour-covered heroes who rarely have time to put down rolling pins and emerge from the back rooms of Chinatown. He wants to inform everyone that he is in the process of creating a television series called 'Show Your Stuff with Inspector Collector,' a kind of antique road-show for kids. His personal collections of Chinese menus, spoons, fruit-paring devices, chopsticks, even toothpicks are all part and parcel of his passion for food, museums and the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

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