Shanghai Surprise: Soup Dumplings


I stole that title; if you’re old enough to remember Madonna and Sean Penn were once married, you might remember they were in a movie together called Shanghai Surprise. I never saw it, but I heard it was terrible.  But I think soup dumplings can restore the title’s virtue.  They originated in Shanghai and if you’ve never had them, let me be clear: these are NOT dumplings that go into soup, it’s the soup that goes inside the dumplings — making it quite a surprise for someone trying them for the first time.  Shanghai Surprise, indeed. That’s Shanghai Surprise #1. 

Grant Avenue & California Street

These little pockets of fun have been on my list of things to make for years..
But I keep getting these signs that I need to make them now. I live in San Francisco’s Nob Hill and here, I’ve found that Shanghai is full of surprises (two, anyway).  I’m on the east side of the hill crest, and as my backyard aggressively slopes into the bay, you roll past Chinatown and through what was once the Barbary Coast before you hit the water. The area is where quite a lot of San Francisco’s early history was centered around, particularly the Gold Rush.

Shanghai Surprise #2 In the mid-1800s, there were only about 500 residents of San Francisco. When word got out that gold was found in in the Sierra foothills in 1848, the population exploded. In the year that followed, men started sailing into the San Francisco Bay (the 49ers) on giant clipper ships with hopes of finding their fortunes. Those clipper ships required a good deal of labor to run. The problem was that the men who sailed in.. didn’t want to sail out. That made it tough for captains when they wanted to take off, so they had to get creative, albeit unethically. When captains were ready to sail out of the bay, they had to coax men away from digging and panning for gold and back on the ships to work on them. After days of digging, the 49ers spent their nights off deep in debauchery in the Barbary Coast. That’s when the ship captains would swoop in and tempt them with a trip to exotic Shanghai in exchange for their work on the ships. But quite often, ship captains would take more forceful tactics to convince the men to come along, like clubbing potential sailors and dragging them aboard. Willingly or unwittingly, those sailors never arrived in Shanghai.. Surprise! They had been shanghaied.

Sidewalk plaque marking the area that was once known as the Barbary Coast.

Admittedly, I haven’t gotten to know my Chinese neighbors very well, save for my swift walks to and from work every day past the shops full of trinkets and produce stands. And I do pass these plaques on the sidewalk that nag at my memory that I’m trudging through the paths that 49ers once walked. It’s all conspiring to get me to make soup dumplings, but it’s raining… making it the perfect day for constructing these little bags of my kind of gold.


Shanghai Surprise #2A  Dough-wrapped soup. It’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle. How do they do that? I have the secret: really good stock. Stock is made with mirepoix (a mixture of onions, carrots and celery) bones and water. You simmer it for hours, carefully skimming foam as it rises to the top of the pot. The longer you let the bones cook, the more collagen you leach out of the joints and connective tissue. It gives your stock body and good mouthfeel. You know you have really good stock if it’s a jelly when it’s refrigerated rather than a liquid.

Stock Jelly

Jelly is much easier to work with than liquid when it comes to folding it into the dough pockets full of a meat mixture. (Quick tip: don’t try to remove the fat while your stock is hot; let it cool and it will rise to the top and harden in the refrigerator. You can remove it and use the schmaltz in place of butter or olive oil in other recipes– reduce, reuse, repurpose!)

Soup Dumpling Assembly For the the dumplings,  I modified my standard recipe for dumplings.  Because this is an experiment, I cut the recipe in half and reduced the amount of meat in each dumpling to make room for soup. The dough should be scaled into twelve equal-sized pieces (about .65 oz) and rolled out into 4” circles.

I do not have the dexterity of a professional dumpling maker, so I used a muffin tin as a crutch to free both hands for the folding:

When they’re ready for cooking, line a steamer with lettuce and steam for about eight minutes. I’ve found they stay together better if they’re frozen and then steamed (no thawing).


Soup dumplings are a lot of work. If you want to try making them, I would suggest making a party out of it so you have help assembling them. Both making them and eating them are grand experiences.. As is living in San Francisco 🙂


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