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Fort Lee's Dumpling Den offers a rare taste of 'Shanghainese' cuisine

The Record, Bergen County logo The Record, Bergen County 10/28/2020 Mary Chao, NorthJersey.com

FORT LEE — Walking into the small, mostly takeout Dumpling Den restaurant along Main Street, you can hear a distinct dialect among the staffers.

The bantering back and forth was in Shanghainese, the language of China's bustling port city where my family is from. I immediately identified myself as Shanghainese and was greeted with a warm welcome from Cathy Chen, a co-owner of the restaurant.

I ordered the soup dumplings, the foodie favorite that squirts a little bit of broth when you bite into the dumpling. Of course, being Shanghainese you would order the xiao long bao (soup dumplings), Cathy says to me, acknowledging it's a homestyle favorite.

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Soup dumplings have been a major food trend across the world for the past decade, with connoisseurs scouring for their favorite pork filled pockets of folded dough. It is the best known Shanghai dish, but there is so much more to the region's cuisine than the mighty dumpling.

The seafaring region on the mid-coast of China has for the past 150 years had a defining foreign influence on its culture. The cuisine has a distinct western flavor with sugar and wine as ingredients.

Shanghai cuisine is often hard to find in the United States and not as well known as Cantonese or Sichuan cuisine. In Fort Lee, there are two Shanghai-style eateries: Dumpling Den at 249 Main St. and Shanghai Restaurant at 493 Main St. Both are smaller eateries with a few tables for dine-in, socially distanced to meet New Jersey state requirements.

Shanghai dishes differ sharply from the traditional Chinese usually found in the U.S. Many of the Chinese American restaurants now are owned and operated by immigrants from Fujian province in southern China serving tried and true favorites such as sesame chicken. 

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Dumpling Den is run by four families behind the scenes. They pooled their resources as immigrants often do to open a business. Chefs Lily Li and Wai Leung Wong approached Paramus resident Albert Chin about investing in a Shanghai-style and dumpling restaurant. Chin is ABC – or American Born Chinese – and retired from the banking industry. He decided there was a niche to be filled.

Soup dumplings are made in the kitchen at Dumpling Den in Fort Lee on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. © Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com Soup dumplings are made in the kitchen at Dumpling Den in Fort Lee on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

"I knew this neighborhood could use a good Shanghai restaurant or a good dumpling place," Chin, 72, said.

The restaurant opened in September of 2018 with Wong and Li as chefs. They were later joined by chef Ming Luo and his wife Cathy Chen. All three chefs have a competitive streak, entering American Chinese Cuisine contests and competing against Chinese chefs around the U.S. while winning medals for their works of culinary art.

Li, Chen and Luo carpool from Flushing each day to get to the Fort Lee restaurant while Wong arrives from Manhattan. Together along with hired staffers, they make dumplings as well as chop and dice for their Shanghai, Sichuan and Chinese American dishes.

Chen and Luo are both from Shanghai and met while working in the restaurant business. Quick with a smile, Cathy Chen worked as a server and hostess in New York City area Asian restaurants for the past two decades. Luo worked as a chef in myriad restaurants and is trained in Sichuan cooking, though he is from Shanghai.

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The couple has a 13-year-old son named Alex who is an eighth-grader in Flushing currently studying to get into his dream high school, Brooklyn Tech. Like many immigrant families in the restaurant business, grandparents help with child rearing while the parents work long hours. Chen's parents emigrated from Shanghai to help raise Alex and assist with the household. 

Investing in Dumpling Den offered chef Luo the chance to bring the taste of his hometown to North Jersey. Shanghai cuisine is known for "red" braising, meaning the meats are stewed in soy sauce, wine and sugar to give it a red appearance. Sugar and soy sauce are important elements in Shanghai food, an adaptation of western flavors that made their way to the international city. Rice accompanies the braised meats instead of noodles that are common in northern regions of China.

The braised pork belly is a prime example of Shanghai cuisine, sweet and savory with fatty meat that melts in your mouth. There's the Shanghai version of the Lion's Head Stew with large tender pork meatballs stewed with vegetables. It's Shanghai style, cooked in a red sauce with a hint of anise and ginger and served with baby bok choy. Prices are reasonable with a braised pork belly rice plate at $10 and soup dumplings at $6.50.

The spring shutdown impacted the fledgling business and the restaurant partners hunkered down to stretch their money. They applied and received money from the federal Payroll Protection Program, and their landlord discounted the rent by 25% to help pull through the dark times. With the reopening, much of the business has been takeout and seating has been blocked off per social distance rules, but tables are available for diners.

a bowl of food on a plate: "Eight treasures" at the Dumpling Den in Fort Lee on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. © Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com "Eight treasures" at the Dumpling Den in Fort Lee on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Izza Dungca of Fort Lee dined in at the restaurant last week to enjoy the dumplings. She is Filipino and appreciates the authenticity of Dumpling Den, especially the soup dumplings, she said.

Authenticity is what the chefs bring forth in their offering of their home cuisine to New Jersey. Some dishes defy translation and the chefs do their best to come up with an Anglicized name. Such is the dish called Eight Treasures. Chen said it's a Shanghai dish and she didn't know how to translate it into English. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese: It's pronounced "ba" which rhymes with "fa," meaning prosperity in Mandarin. 

A taste of Eight Treasures hit home. This is the dish my father always made for Chinese potluck get-togethers with braised chunks of pork and spiced tofu in black bean paste and spicy chili sauce. Reflecting on this meal, I never knew what it was called either. It's just a traditional dish served in Shanghainese homes.

Mary Chao covers the Asian community of North Jersey, small business and real estate at The Record. Email her at mchao@gannett.com. On Twitter: @marychaostyle.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Fort Lee's Dumpling Den offers a rare taste of 'Shanghainese' cuisine

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