STEP 1: WHAT IS A SOUP DUMPLING, AND WHY SHOULD I EAT IT?
It's a well known fact that Soup dumplings are one of the world's most perfect foods. Okay, well known by me, at least. Please tell me you've tasted one. If you haven't, let me do my best to describe: a bite sized meatball of pork or pork and crabmeat, seasoned beautifully and swimming in a meaty and rich broth all tied up a thin dough pouch twisted elegantly like a perfect christmas package, and adorned with a spoonful of salty soy-based sauce mingled with ginger slivers like tiny matchsticks. When you bite in, the hot broth, chewy dough, and meaty center explode in your mouth, making for a singularly perfect bite. This is almost unbearable to type as my craving for a soup dumpling is now officially overwhelming.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY THE LOCATION OF SAID SOUP DUMPLINGS.
The Boyfriend and I are lucky enough that a paradise for soup dumplings, Grand Sichuan, is right near us. However, this story of Soup Dumplings doesn't take place at Grand Sichuan. No. It begins at home, after a late Saturday afternoon nap. It was 7pm and the sun was down when I opened my eyes. I reached across the couch to nudge the Boyfriend and said, "Let's go to the Dumpling House." Where this idea came from, I have no idea. But the thought of a cheap dinner in this chinatown hole in the wall seemed like a stroke of dream-induced genius.
STEP 3: ALL ROADS CAN AND SHOULD LEAD TO SOUP DUMPLINGS
Silly me. at 8pm on a Saturday night, the place was PACKED, with a line of people hovering over those lucky enough to snag a table, waiting for them to take their last bite before they swooped in for a seat. We resolved to come back another time. But now I had to have dumplings. "Joe's Shanghai!" I exclaimed. I'd never been, but had heard quite a bit about it and apparently it is THE place to go for....that's right...SOUP DUMPLINGS. By the time the Boyfriend looked up the address on his Blackberry, my craving had reached epic proportions. We set out through the dark Chinatown streets, our mouths watering.
STEP 4: LET NOTHING DETER YOU FROM YOUR QUEST. NEITHER HUNGER, NOR DISORIENTATION, NOR HUMILIATION, NOR LONG LINES.
Between the two of us, we've lived in this city for oh, about 15 years combined. And it's not a large island, this Manhattan. So would you believe me when I said after about four minutes of trying to outsmart the blackberry map, we didn't know which end was up/our ass from our heads/a pigeon from a porcupine? We were LOST. I am not kidding you when I say I saw streets I never knew existed, I walked down entire blocks without seeing one English letter, and asked directions like a tourist. We walked past Chinese banks and barbershops, old men squatting on the sidewalk slurping quart containers of noodles, packs of teenagers flying by on bikes, gray and mottled windows looking down into ground floor kitchens where vats of fish heads sat staring up at an old tv flashing Chinese game shows, and in the midst of it all, an imposing ancient synagogue out of which poked a head with long and shiny peyes, under a tall black hat. I've never felt so lost in my own city. "You wanted to get out of town this weekend," The Boyfriend said. "Well, here we are."
Finally, after much circling and some helpful hand gestures, we spotted Pell Street, leapt for joy and dashed across Bowery (or was it East Broadway?) to Joe's Shanghai. Emboldened by our adventure, I pushed my way through the crowd outside and into the packed restaurant. Instantly, the hostess directed to two empty mismatched chairs at a table for ten. The interior of Joe's Shanghai is set up like a rec room--brightly lit with low paneled ceilings, and crammed with the large circular tables and black chairs you might find in a conference hall. We sat down, sandwiched between a party of 8 who were finishing up their dinner. Before we had even picked up our menus, our no-nonsense waiter asked if we'd like dumplings to start. Duh. We quickly settled on the whole spicy fish (not spicy in the least, it turned out), ordered "crispy" as the waiter suggested, and a sesame pancake to go with our dumplings, and two beers. Soon, in a large bamboo steamer, our dumplings arrived. After our trek through Manhattasia, how sweet it was.
STEP 5: SERIOUSLY, THOUGH. THERE'S A TECHNIQUE.
I've learned, in my extensive soup dumpling eating experience, that there is a right and wrong way to eat these things. The wrong way can result in a ruined shirt, a scalded tongue, and an angry dinner companion. The right way will keep you from looking like a total fool, and maximize your taste explosion. Proceed cautiously. With the tongs they provide, gently transfer a dumpling to your large spoon, taking care not to puncture the skin. Holding the spoon in one hand and your chopsticks in the other, carefully, take a small bite out of the dough near the top of the dumpling. Now is your chance to get some points for style. You can either slurp out some of the soup inside, enjoying the broth and making the whole thing more manageable, or press down on the dumpling so the soup runs out onto the spoon. Blow a little on the opening you've created so the insides don't scald you. If you want to be like the delicate and graceful young woman who was seated next to us halfway through our meal, you can take a spoonful of the soy sauce and pour it in through the opening you made. Or if you're me, and not that coordinated, spoon a small amount over the top of the dumpling. Now, with the chopsticks pinching the dumpling to a manageable size, tip the spoon into your mouth, taking a bite and slurping the sauce and broth into your mouth at once. It should only take two bites to eat the whole thing.
Do NOT by any means, do what the gentleman to my right, on an evening out with his buddies, did to his poor dumpling, stabbing it with both chopsticks so the broth ran out onto his plate, and tearing it into tiny bits and pieces which he ate separately, one by one.
Do NOT do what I managed to do on my last dumpling: get greedy and skip a step, tearing right into the dumpling with your front teeth, causing a geyser of broth to shoot out onto your dinner companions plate.
DO go eat some of these immediately. And if you can help it, get a little lost along the way. Honestly, I think I prefer the dumplings at Grand Sichuan, but the journey to Joe's was more than half the fun.