What Makes A Good Shumai?

When I'm eating dim sum, the three things I look for in a perfect shumai.

Published Feb. 12, 2021.

I once ate 24 shumais in one sitting, true story.

It’s not something I’m proud of sharing (much like the time I took the 64-ounce porterhouse challenge—eat the whole steak in an hour and get it for free). But it does reveal my infatuation with the Chinese dim sum staple, in my opinion the world heavyweight champion of dumplings.

Allow me to set the scene: A pork-and-shrimp filling, often with mushrooms and water chestnuts, stuffed inside a yellow egg dough wrapper with the top of the filling exposed. Steamed and served typically four to a bamboo basket. The texture is toothsome but tender, and the flavor bursts of rich, meaty savoriness. I dab some chili oil and soy sauce on my shumai. Writing this paragraph, I’m daydreaming of 24 more.

The earliest shumai, according to The Dim Sum Field Guide by Carolyn Phillips, came from the Yuan dynasty in Northern China sometime in the late 13th century. Eventually, the dumplings migrated south to Guangdong province, where the Cantonese incorporated shumai into their dim sum vocabulary.

I’ve yet to encounter a truly awful shumai, but I’ve eaten enough to distinguish decent versions from the great ones.

Here are three things I look for in a shumai:

  1. Texture is the key. Western interpretations of meat-stuffed dumplings lean toward a granular filling, one loosely held together. Think of a coarse-ground burger patty: Cut into it and you can almost see individual loose grains. The Chinese, however, enjoy a texture that’s closer to the consistency of meatloaf. It’s difficult to articulate in words but instantly recognizable by mouthfeel: bouncy, toothsome, snappy, tender. The Taiwanese prize this texture so much they’ve given it a name: “Q.” The way to achieve this texture involves chopping the raw filling so finely it becomes paste-like in its consistency. This, of course, takes time and effort. If you want to judge the quality of a better-than-average shumai, take a bite. You’ll know it before you taste it.
  2. Shumais have a yellow wrapper and a grayish filling, and are almost always topped with an orange-colored contrast. What they use for this orange topping may tell you something about the restaurant. The better quality shumais will likely use a fish roe as a topper, which steams into tiny orange pearls. You won’t taste it; it’s purely ornamental. Some dim sum parlors, however, may choose to save money by using minced carrots or dried goji berries. Other times you may see shumai topped with a green pea. (The ultra-fancy versions will top their shumai with a whole shrimp.)
  3. Shumais should be bulbous and substantial. The yellow wrapper should hold snug around the filling. You shouldn’t see sagging or drooping on its exterior. If it does, it may indicate something about the pork-and-shrimp filling: perhaps not cohesive enough, too dry, or the chef decided to skimp that day.

Let me give an endorsement to our shumai recipe, which gets a passing grade with honors from this Chinese lover of dim sum. (Start a free trial to access the recipe.) Our recipe is able to achieve that toothsome-tender texture by using a food processor to grind the pork filling into two textures: coarse and fine. The result is an appealing textural contrast. 

Here's how my shumai turned out:

Photo Credit: Sellwell, ctktiger1018 | Getty Images

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