I was on the street in Shanghai when it happened. There was a rippling torrent of hot lard, a pork-fat explosion. Hunger and lust clouded my judgment and as I bit into the dumpling, ignoring its molten heat, its innards splashed across my face. The pain was incredible, absolutely piercing.
In the seconds that followed, this is what happened in my brain:
1. I gained a firm and permanent grasp of thermodynamics. Like sometimes I used to have to think, Does heat expand or contract? Sheng jian bao taught me that heat wants to GET OUT. I know that’s an embarrassing thing to admit that I didn’t always know but, hey, every time I spell “bananas” I have to sing the Gwen Stefani song to myself so whatever. In this case, the dumpling fat gave me a burn that ringed my mouth like an extreme case of facial herpes, which was an every-morning-in-the-mirror reminder about how heat works for days and days.
2. But the formal consideration of heat was far less pressing issue to me than, “When is the optimal time to eat this dumpling? When is it safe?”
In my hands, I had one less than the six or eight the vendor sold me in a little Styrofoam clamshell. Maybe it was the way my head was flooding with dopamine and my brain was reeling from the shock of the heat, but my reaction was to eat another. STILL WAY TOO HOT. Nothing stopped me. No pain, no sense—nothing. I ate them all, a scorched and deepily satisfied man who would soon enough be using his fake facial herpes to his advantage at the casino tables. A man who had found the world’s most underrated (and occasionally very dangerous) dumpling: the sheng jian bao.
It’s the golden child–it’s the dumpling that will make you forget about every other dumpling.
Sheng jian bao are cousins of xiao long bao, which are infinitely more famous. You might know them as soup dumplings or XLB; they’re those super-delicate purses of pork and hot soup that you sip gently out of a spoon with Chinkiang vinegar and threads of fresh ginger.
Sheng jian bao are similar, but the dumpling skin they’re made with is sturdy enough that it can be griddled—so the bottom is charred and crisp, like the pan-fried Northern-style dumplings. Plus it’s a yeasted dough, so there’s an additional level of flavor complexity to the wrapper. Inside, some combination of the dumpling farce’s mix of fat, soy, and Shaoxing wine creates a little bit of soup that’s explosive when it’s hot out of the pan.
It’s magical—it’s the all-purpose dumpling. It’s got the dumpling farce; it’s got the pan-fried dumpling texture; it’s got enough of the juice in it to be just a little bit soupy. And they’re sturdy! You can’t walk around with a bag of soup dumplings, but you can eat these things on the move; you can eat them three hours later and they’re still good.
This is where I was like, People are stupid. They don’t realize—even the Chinese people. They don’t even know what the fuck they’re doing. They don’t even know that they’re sitting on gold. It’s like all those Australians that were sitting on zinc for so long without realizing what a not-literal goldmine it was!