Photo by Jane Silver
For food nerds, Shanghai-style soup dumplings (xiao long bao) are pretty much the ultimate fetish object. They’re hard to make: a mixture of pork and/or crab and gelatinised stock is stuffed into a thin dough wrapper, fussily pleated into a bite-sized pouch and steamed until the meat has come together in a loose sphere and the gelatine’s melted back into soup. They're hard to eat, requiring a ritual in which you gently nibble a hole in the wrapper and slurp the broth out before devouring the whole thing (do it right and it's vaguely sexual, do it wrong and get a shirt full of scalding pork juice). And they're hard to find, at least outside of China.
I happen to've spent part of the past month in Shanghai, where I stuffed my face with the things to the extent that literally my first thought as the plane wheels grazed the Tegel runway was how in god's name am I gonna find xiao long bao here? Here, in Berlin, where Chinese means süß-sauer and Glückskekse and inevitably Ente Kross? Berlin, where the closest thing to a Chinatown is half a block on Kantstraße?
My thinking proved outdated – from Momos to YuMe, dumplings are the hot shit right here right now, and xiao long bao can indeed be found at Long March Canteen in Kreuzberg and Yumcha Heroes in Mitte under the name “Shanghai Dumplings”. The catch: you only get four per order at both, and they're €6.50 and €5.50 respectively. And barring caviar and endangered species, you really shouldn't be paying more than €1 for a single mouthful of anything.
Further research led me to Shaniu's House of Noodles, a Shanghainese restaurant in Wilmersdorf whose name translates to “silly little girl”. Deep within a menu laden with the usual süß-sauer nonsense (and kimchi, and miso soup, and Thai curry...) lurk a number of house specialities, including – jackpot – a bamboo steamer full of five hausgemacht pork soup dumplings for €3.50.
So how are they? For a silly little girl, Shaniu's does a lot of things right. The wrapper's thin and twisty on top like it should be, and the meat filling's moist and full of flavour. Dipped in the provided black vinegar, the dumplings are nearly indistinguishable from their counterparts in the motherland... except for, well, the reason why I was ordering them in the first place: the soup. There’s definitely a little bit in there, but compared to the near-explosive xiao long bao I was eating less than a month ago, Shaniu’s are the equivalent of porn without the money shot.
But those are massively unfair standards – I mean, would you expect to find even halfway decent Vollkornbrot in China? – and the dumplings aren’t the best reason to go to Shaniu's, anyway. That honour would go to the noodle soups, especially the one with tender, slow-cooked beef brisket in a dark, rich broth redolent of anise and cinnamon (€6). It’s comfort food no matter which country you’re from, delicious even without the “for Berlin” qualifier. Vegetarians, don't despair; meatless options abound from pan-fried vegetable jiaozi to a deceptively simple tomato-egg stir-fry to a crisp cucumber salad with vinegar, sesame oil and plenty of garlic. All for prices that justify the schlep out to Wilmersdorf – you’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than €10 per person.
So yeah, I’ll be back. And after a month or so of frozen wontons from Lidl’s Asia-Woche, greasy noodles from China Box and “Kung-Fu Döner” from Nur Gemuse, I’ll order those soup dumplings again. And they will blow my fucking mind.
Shaniu's House of Noodles, Pariser Str. 58, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr., Wed-Mon 12-22