The Science of a Perfect Soup Dumpling


For 16 months, from December 2013 to April 2015, Christopher St. Cavish toted a digital scale, a caliper, and hair scissors to more than 50 eateries in Shanghai—all in the name of savory science. St. Cavish was on a mission to catalog and rank every Shanghai soup dumpling (or xiao long bao) with a method that was based on hard data rather than subjective opinion.

The result is the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, a “quantitative framework to the existing qualitative descriptors of the Shanghai soup dumpling.” To create the index, St. Cavish meticulously collected the weight of a dumpling, the weight of the soup within, the weight of the filling, and the thickness of the skin. To that data, he applied a formula: [(Filling + Soup / Thickness of Skin) x 100]. The higher the number, the better the dumpling, and winner would represent the greatest feat of engineering in the world of xiao long bao. If that sounds awfully dry, then let’s talk food: St. Cavish was looking for thin skin, a lot of soup, plenty of filling, and fresh meat.

Like the real Olympics, this culinary competition forced dumplings to qualify before they could compete. Some were immediately ineligible due to breaking, too much MSG, or just plain poor quality. All of the dumplings in the Index had to have pork filling and could not be seasoned with anything other than spring onions, ginger, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and/or MSG. The dumplings had to be of the Nanxiang style—a distinction based largely on their size and flavoring. They’re also dumplings served immediately after steaming for the highest quality.

The objectives and nuances of St. Cavish’s venture are numerous and remarkably in-depth even for dumpling devotees. Thirteen eateries made it into the top rung of Class A. Zun Ke Lai is top dog with a score of 24.32, and it’s the gold medal winner by a long shot. Number two is Taibei Mingchu, with an Index score of 18.52. St. Cavish’s method offers a new way of approaching what it means when we say one place or plate is better than another. More importantly, it’s a great way to justify eating 15 pounds of delicious xiao long bao.