A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Shanghai, Part Seven: Yang's Dumpling

You walk down a busy side street perpendicular to a busy main street, a river of people heading down the sidewalk, and whichever direction you’re going it always feels like you’re swimming upstream.

If you didn't know where you were going you would easily pass it by: another anonymous-looking hole-in-the-wall eatery in a block full of similar establishments. A pink sign with white lettering states simply: “Yang’s Dumpling.”

You walk in and the place is packed--small tables with two or four seats, all full, and depending on your location, a line of customers going out the door.

The menu on the wall above the counter is simple, listing a handful of soups in English and Chinese, all priced around eight to twelve yuan, and cans of soda--Coke products--four yuan. But the stars of the show are listed with a picture on the menu’s left side--an order of four dumplings for six yuan, the best dollar you can spend in all of Shanghai.

When you make it to the front of the line you point at the menu to communicate your order to the woman behind the counter: Wonton soup, one order of dumplings, and a Coke. You hand her 20 yuan and she hands you your receipt, a can of Coke, and a large bendy straw.

The kitchen is visible through glass walls beside the cashier. A cook stands in front of a large pan filled with dumplings. You slip your receipt under the glass and he grabs from the stack of rectangular yellow plates next to the stack of to-go boxes beside his pan. He picks up his spatula and quickly scoops four dumplings on to the plate and passes it to you.

You take your plate and walk upstairs--there’s always more seating upstairs. Finding an empty chair, you sit, and a moment later a woman brings you your soup.

The soup would be enough to warrant the trip. The broth is hot and tastes of greasy pork and cilantro--salty and just a little tangy. The bowl is large and loaded with small, chewy wontons. They’re flatter than wontons you've seen in American Chinese restaurants--shaped sort of like a messy stack of papers. Each slurp fills your belly with warmth.

But then you turn to the plate of dumplings. Each one contains a ball of beef slightly larger than a golf ball, with dough wrapped around it, making it roughly the size of a tennis ball. The dumpling has been steamed, and then the bottom, where the dough has been cinched closed, has been pan fried in oil, making it chewy on top and crunchy on the bottom. Sesame seeds and green onions have been sprinkled on top.

This photo taken at a later date when I was ambitious/foolish enough to go for a double order of the dumplings.

On your table, you find soy sauce and vinegar, and you pour them into the small dish provided for dipping--one part soy sauce, two parts vinegar, as you have been instructed.

The size makes the dumplings somewhat difficult to pick up with chop sticks. Surveying the bustling scene around you, you note that even the locals look awkward when doing it. You look downright foolish. Nonetheless, after some effort, you grasp the dumpling, dip it in the sauce, and transfer it to your soup spoon, as you have observed others. You use the spoon to bring the dumpling to your lips and take a bite.

Hot beef juice spurts into your mouth in an explosion of flavor that leaves you wondering if you should cover your head with a napkin so as to hide your shame from God. How can one small ball contain so much juice? The oily mess drips down your lips and off the dumpling, filling the spoon and the plate holding the other three. The dough is chewy and you use your incisors to cut it away, exposing the hunk of beef inside. With the next bite, you take the beef into your mouth and hold it momentarily, absorbing the flavor. Are the others around you watching? Are they judging you, mocking you for the joy on your face? You swallow the meatball and crunch into the pan-fried base of the dumpling, somehow even more oily than the rest of it. You slurp up the juice on the spoon, but most of it has ended up on the plate, now a mess of liquid and beef fat.

With all of the grease, the second dumpling is somehow even harder to pick up than the first. You end up penetrating it with the chop sticks and holding it up like a skewer. More juice issues forth and the olfactory experience begins to overwhelm.

After finishing the soup you feel warm and satisfied and full and dirty all at once. You leave the messy remains of your bowl and your plate at the table, along with the empty Coke can with the bendy straw and a number of used napkins. A server has already begun cleaning up for the next patron while you’re putting on your backpack. You walk out, thinking about heading back to the subway station from whence you can, and on your way out you hear two other gringos talking over their plates of dumplings. One says to the other, "China's intense, man."

It is indeed.

NOTE: I swear, when I started writing this, the sexual double entendres were entirely accidental, but eventually I just leaned into it.

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