Food For Thought: Xiao Long Bao and Authenticity in Food
When considering foods eaten out of context—that is, foods eaten in a country or region that they do not originate from—the question of authenticity and what it means to be "authentic" is always a vexing one. Take, for example, Xiao Long Bao—the soup-filled dumplings hailing from Shanghai that have since been popularized throughout the world. Even referring to them as "dumplings" is enough to set off some food scholars who insist that they are distinct from what we traditionally classify as dumplings. The question is, what does it mean to be authentic and more precisely, is it even possible for authenticity to be preserved across the many barriers of language mapping, social custom, and regional tastes?
First, a bit of history: Generally thought to have been invented in the late 19th century, possibly as early as the years preceding the Guang Xu period (1875-1908) of Qing China, xiao long bao hail from the town of Nan Xiang in what is now Shanghai's Jiading district. There, they are called xiao long man tou ("little basket steamed bread")*. So the rumor goes, the first XLB were sold out of a shop owned by a Mr. Huang Mingxian, who was driven to innovate them due to the increased competition of new vendors attracted to the crowds his famous steamed buns brought in. Mr. Huang may have adapted the soup bun form, as the much larger but similarly shaped Yangzhou tang bao ("soup bun")** might indicate, but its unlikely that he invented them all his own.
* For reasons of clarity, xiao long bao will be the term predominately used throughout the article unless otherwise necessary. Soup dumpling and XLB will be used when convenient. In Southern China, mantou, a foodstuff native to and imported from the country's North, is used to describe synonymously with bao zi to describe steamed with bread with a filling . Hence, xiao long man tou.
** Its not entirely clear whether the giant soup buns are a recent invention or not.
This lore is probably condensed history. I spoke with Fuchsia Dunlop, the West's foremost expert on Chinese cuisine, who explained, "I don't think anyone would say that Nan Xiang was the first place in the region to do the soupy dumplings because there are other versions which offer to go back much longer."*** Internationalized by Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, xiao long bao are today one of 83 folk arts protected by the Shanghai government.
*** For her part, Dunlop suggests that XLB were probably invented closer to the turn of the (20th) century rather then the 1870s. Her two sources agree on this.
What Makes A Dumpling?
In the West, "dumpling" is a term used to define a wide range of boiled, dough-based foods ranging from gnocchi to the simmered balls of biscuit dough in chicken 'n' dumplings to matzoh balls and pirogi. The term has been reapplied to a wide variety of similar boiled or steamed dough-based snacks from Asia without cooking method, technical composition, or wrapping style taken into account. Unlike western dumplings, Asian dumplings unanimously have fillings. However, in China, no single, all encompassing term for the concept exists. To give you a sense of the confusion, it's like lumping omelets and meringue cookies into a single, undifferentiated category simply because they are both made with beaten eggs. It's thus a logical fallacy to assume or imply a one-to-one mapping of the Western word "dumpling" and any Mandarin word for common forms of stuffed dough-based snacks.
Let's take a look at a few key categories.
Jiao zi refers to a foodstuff of vegetables and/or meat wrapped in unleavened, pleated dough that is traditionally accompanied by a vinegar dipping sauce. (Guo tie, zheng jiao, and shui jiao are some variations.) This is most often what Westerners picture when they say "dumpling"; many dictionaries translate the word accordingly.
Served in soup or sometimes a puddle of chili oil, hun tun ("wontons"), described by Dunlop as "probably China's most ancient dumpling", are related but distinct, generally made with square wrappers that are less formal in their pleating and sealing.
Dim Sum gaau (Cantonese for "jiao") are also distinct from either hun tun or jiao zi. Wonton wrappers often contain eggs and are square, jiao zi's are circular, and gauu thin to the point of translucency.
Purse-shaped bao zi (roughly translated as "wrapped around thing") are made with a fluffy, sweet, yeast-leavened dough housing sweet or savory fillings and are regarded as their own species: steamed buns.
Further complicating matters, jiao zi wrappers can be made with leavened dough, as in Hebei province in central China. In the North, this is not uncommon either. Form, too, is essential: jiao zi are horn-shaped, hun tun larger and triangular or circular, and gaau tinier. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about dumplings, and buns too, is that any attempt to be definitive will ultimately fail. Fresh complications and intricacies inevitably arise.
So are Xiao Long Bao Dumplings?
In New York, we tend to think of soup dumplings**** in narrow terms: little bao zi babies with thin jiao zi-esque wrappers. But no definitive form exists. In an article for CNNGo, preeminent Shanghai food critic Shen Hongfei explained that what are popularly marketed as xiao long bao are in fact "Nanjing tang bao ... [these are] the soup-filled dumplings with very thin skin." For a proper xiao long bao, chef Anthony Zhao agrees, "the skin should be a bit thicker then tang bao, but not as thick as in sheng jian [bao]," and the filling meatier. When our conversation veered towards variations in style, Dunlop said, "it may be that it's a kind of Western obsession. I can't say that definitively, it just seems that there are just different variations, and the Nan Xiang [style] has become very famous because it's an extremely touristy area."
**** Contrary to the claims of a certain notoriously grumpy critic, there does indeed exist a word in Mandarin, "汤" ("tang"), that translates into soup. At least according to my copy of the Common Press' Concise English-Chinese Dictionary (3rd edition), purchased in a Shanghai book store (which has to count for something here.)
As far as English terms are concerned, it seems acceptable to call something that is doughier a bun and something with a thinner wrapping a dumpling. So the argument goes, if bao zi have leavened dough, which is almost always true, but xiao long bao—or the form Westerners are familiar with—don't, then they are dumplings, not buns. However, if we are going to equate dumpling with jiao zi, then we ought to be clear. Leavened or unleavened dough, xiao long bao are not jiao zi, which are always horn shaped. Like other bao zi, XLB are purse shaped. As an all encompassing term for these related foodstuffs, dumpling doesn't do justice, failing to take into account the particulars and gray zones endemic to the Chinese perspective.
Indeed, we already are dealing with an issue of translation between the microcultures of China. Bao zi were, for all intents and purposes, a foreign foodstuff to rice eating southern China. Imported from the wheat consuming north, they were already facing cultural reappropriation before making their way to our distant shores.
The problem with getting all riled up over whether "soup dumpling" is a misnomer or not is that translation is never clean. A dumpling means something different to a Chinese-American than it does to an Anglo-American eating in a Chinese restaurant or a Polish-American making pirogi. Food is constantly being re-contextualized, consumed and informed by people under new circumstances. Lost in all this white noise is the fact that "dumpling" is an English word with roots in Low German, used to describe a befuddling variety of unrelated foods.
What Is Authenticity?
The soup dumpling obsession springs from the drive towards authenticity—and particularly the prioritization of "informed consumption"—which emphasizes experiencing cuisine in its original and unadulterated context; an attempt to remove "the Other" from our dining experience. Xiao long bao pointedly address the issue of how much influence the culture of origin should maintain. To what degree should we accommodate the original perspective? Should cultures deal with systematic and interruptive differences in classification through accommodation or correction?
As Dunlop pointed out, "there are different ways of classifying things [in Chinese cuisine]. You can classify things by the kind of flour, the kind of starch used in the wrapper. Or by the shape, or by the filling, or by the cooking method. In daily life, it's not something people think about." Authenticity would demand that we strictly adhere to the system of origin. If food is the primary conduit through which we experience culture, then this is probably the right path.
What this train of thought doesn't account for is that we are not, no matter the lengths, ever eating xiao long bao in the unadulterated context. Even at a stall in an unregulated Hongkou district night market, you are still, and maybe more than ever, a lao wei ("foreigner"). Authenticity in food is an illusion.
Is this damnation? Not quite. Refusing to incorporate the external perspective devalues the culture of origin, limiting us to experiences we are already familiar with. When blogging about her dilemma over how to translate 豆腐 ("do fu") into English, Dunlop wrote: "As someone writing about Chinese food and culinary culture, shouldn't I be advocating a Chinese-derived term when describing a foodstuff that has its origins in China? I suddenly noticed how many of the terms used by English speakers for Asian foods are derived from the Japanese." The problem with working from the secondary perspective is that the individual is presented with an already re-interpreted picture.
In his 1989 Vogue Magazine essay "True Choucrote", Jeffery Steingarten offers us a more elastic definition of authenticity. Writing about his pursuit of the most authentic choucroute garnie a l'Alsacienne (Alsatian pork with sauerkraut), the critic advises: "... if it could have been made in Alsace by a traditional cook, it is authentic. When my chart gave me permission, I choose what most pleased my tastes ... Authenticity seems more a matter of ranges and limitations than of outright prescriptions."
However, in spite of Steingarten's guidelines, authenticity in food remains reductionist and misleading, at its worst favoring a crystallized illusion. It's a culinary imperialism that treats restaurants like reservations, where "ethnic" people cook food in ways that have not changed since time immemorial—and always will. While recognizing its positive contributions, Dunlop noted, "Authenticity should never be an argument for conservatism. Cuisines are always about where they are now—they've always evolved through contact, through absorption of new ingredients, through contact with new people."
In his Shanghai cuisine primer Culinary Nostalgia, Mark Swislocki, referencing 1950s reporter Chen Mengyin, wrote, "what passes for Sichuan cuisine today only took shape relatively recently, probably no more then 250 years ago." A flush of immigrants and new ingredients changed the game. Today, anything less than searing heat is considered a misrepresentation (it isn't). But when digging into that ma po do fu, you aren't thinking about how those chilies, which give the dish its vital kick, were originally brought over from the New World by European merchants. They have become synonymous with Sichuanese cuisine to the point of being one of its defining elements—talk about evolution through contact with new people!
It's hard to find a more poignant example of the flaws inherent to the authenticity model.
Such "defining" foods are often mythologized, and in the process shed the complexity of their historical origins. Take pizza, brought over to the United States, as anybody could tell you, by Italian immigrants. Some Americans even make pilgrimages to Naples in search of more authentic pizza. But this was a two way street—remember, the first tomatoes had to be imported from the New World.
Fusing Authentic Cuisines
Cemented into our culture as they are, restaurants are a modern invention. And it is becoming increasingly clear that, when presented in the authenticity paradigm, they limit our perception of what a cuisine can be. To suggest that a dish can only be made in one way, if it is to be true to its culture, ignores historical reality: If most people eat and ate at home, how can everyone possibly be eating the same thing? Do all New Yorkers only eat Brooklyn-style plain slices? It's a radical oversimplification. The concept of authenticity, as contemporarily pushed, ignores the malleable nature of food, framing it as static and unchanging.
Only, the problem is that food made with some notion of "authenticity" in mind is often made better; with more attention, love and respect. The best foods in the world are those that were developed by generations of home cooks and restaurant chefs who developed intricate systems of flavor with limited regionally-based resources. It's unreasonable to expect a single modern cook to invent a brand new cuisine or dish that can compete with, say, dumplings or pizza. In self-conscious modern "fusion" cuisines, cooking food spuriously often means appealing to the worst aspects of our palates and, in catering to cultural ignorance, stripping a cuisine of its eccentricities, producing a culinary minstrel show—an edible farce.
In an interview with Eatocracy, chef Ming Tsai stated, "it's adapted for the wrong reasons, to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public." Valuing authenticity affords greater diversity. It's easy to imagine the Chinese as one monolithic people when you imagine them all eating the cloyingly sweet General Tso's chicken. But, as Dunlop has pointed out, China is a continent unto itself, with a continuous stream of culture dating back to the Han dynasty and drawing on sources as ancient as the Bronze Age's Xia. With 1,226 miles between them, Shanghai and Chengdu, both culturally a part of Southern China, are twice as far apart as Berlin and London are. Step outside those bounds and the distances get enormous. Despite China's massive scale and population, for many foreigners, its cuisine and all of its varied traditions are compressed into one air-tight serving.
A lot of New Yorkers would boast that you can't find good pizza anywhere outside of New York—even 225 miles away in Boston. In contrast, Taiwan—where the perceived international standard for xiao long bao was established at Din Tai Fung by a Shanxi immigrant—is 430 miles away from Shanghai.
For the average American, minor technical differences don't matter much. But shouldn't they? Willful cultural ignorance is nothing to boast about. Yet, Dunlop concedes the inevitability of simplification and reconciliation: "I could try to run a one-woman campaign for dou fu or beancurd, but this might be at the cost of winning converts to the pleasures of Chinese food, which is, after all, the main point of what I do." It's a position to consider. What's more important: celebrating the playful joys of soup dumplings or getting into fits over translation? The way the obsession—giving the linguistic issue precedence over the culinary concern—is manifested suggests a distracted focus; an objectification of food into cultural capital.
What's the verdict? Food doesn't have to be "authentic" to be delicious—though it certainly helps to maintain the spirit of the cuisine. Delimiting a food like pizza with an artificial certification of authenticity (like the standards set by the Vera Pizza Napoletana society) ignores its origins on the trade routes, a place of birth shared by a great deal of our favorite foods. Some Americans become obsessed with eating chilies, learning to love spicy in an effort to experience more authentic cuisine—all the while forgetting where peppers first came from. That aside, the concept has undoubtedly pushed food forward in this nation, exposing millions to new flavors and ingredients they'd otherwise never experience. But maybe it's time we moved beyond authentic, towards a more malleable, and perhaps delicious, cuisine.
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and he author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.