Soup dumplings, those tender pouches of ground pork and broth from Shanghai, seemed to explode across New York City in the mid- to late 1990s, perhaps reaching a peak circa 1998, when Joe's Shanghai, one of the original dumpling purveyors, opened an upscale branch in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
While the fervor for soup dumplings may have settled down and the long lines have abated, a return trip to the Joe's Shanghai restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, confirmed that they are still as tasty as they ever were.
Tucked away in a small shopping plaza off of Broadway, Joe's Shanghai serves two variations on the soup dumpling theme, pork or a combination of pork and crab. The dumplings arrive to the table in piping hot bamboo steamers. Like a beggar's purse, each plump dumpling contains a little pork meatball surrounded by a meaty broth. Tongs are provided to lift the dumplings off the steamer and onto a soup spoon. To prevent burning one's mouth and to savor the dumpling, the preferred method of consumption is to bite off a little piece of the doughy wrapper, suck out the broth with a slurp, and then polish off the rest.
The visit was inspired by an article by Margo True in the April 2004 issue of Saveur detailing the art and history of the soup dumpling (the article is not online). Ms. True writes that the exact origins of soup dumplings, or xiao long bao ("little dumplings from basket"), are unknown, but they first appeared in Nanxiang, northwest of Shanghai, at least 100 years ago.
The article includes a recipe to make the dumplings at home, and Ms. True reveals the secret behind the soup. The rich liquid comes from small cubes of aspic made from pork skin that is mixed into the filling. As the filling steams, the aspic melts--turning from solid into liquid--and soup dumplings are born.
Joe's Shanghai, 82-74 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens (718.639.6888). Multiple locations in Flushing, Queens, and Manhattan.