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Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index: The nerdiest food guide ever?

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Let homeboy whip out his digital calipers and scale, to measure your xiao long bao to the fraction of a millimeter! He eats, drinks, and presumably poops data!

What a ridiculous and WONDERFUL project!

Unlike other iconic Shanghainese dishes, xiao long bao proved the optimal subject for a numbers-based experiment, St. Cavish says, because three of the four standards for a well-constructed soup dumpling — thin skin, plentiful soup and abundant filling — can be easily measured and expressed in a mathematical formula.

"There's not a lot of foods like that. A croissant has just three ingredients — butter, flour and salt — but assessing flakiness is really hard," he says by way of example.

The index is essentially mute on the fourth xiao long bao standard, savory meat. Attempting to measure that, St. Cavish writes in the pamphlet, "would have required analysis by potentiometric solid-state electrodes or near infrared-spectroscopy, both beyond the means of the researcher," though he did disqualify any dumpling with an excessive taste of MSG.

Mao Fuyu, the manager of Zun Ke Lai, agrees with St. Cavish that "taste is very hard to rank. If you have 100 people, they have 100 different opinions; some like it sweet, some spicy. But soup and skin are the critical factors."

Asked how Zun Ke Lai manages to make its skins so thin — an average of 0.72 millimeters — and its filling so heavy (46% by weight), Mao replies, "That's a trade secret."

St. Cavish divides his 52 surveyed restaurants into Class A (a score of 12 or above), B (6.75 or above) and C (below 6.75 — "to be avoided"). Most Class A dumplings, he discovered, were at least 20% soup by weight. None had a skin thicker than 1.36 millimeters. Din Tai Fung ranked No. 7 on the index with a score of 13.86; Zun Ke Lai's 10-cent-apiece dumplings topped the charts with a 24.32 mark.

Anthony Zhao, who serves the dumplings at his two Shanghai restaurants, says the popularity of Din Tai Fung's pricey dumplings — nearly $1 each here — has captured the attention of Shanghai chefs, who are now experimenting with colored skins and unconventional fillings.

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