Sunday, March 31, 2013

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Shanghai Soup Dumplings: Xiaolongbao, The Complete Guide


For foodies, Shanghai is synonymous with xiaolongbao, savory and delicious soup-filled dumplings that seem to defy culinary possibility. With this guide you'll become an overnight expert and discover where Shanghai's best, oldest, and most secret xiaolongbao spots can be found, and how to order and eat xiaolongbao. Ready?

1. How do you say xiaolongbao?
2. What are xiaolongbao?
3. How to eat xiaolongbao
4. How to order xiaolongbao
5. Five Shanghai xiaolongbao eateries to try
6. Where to find more information - recipes, xiaolongbao classes, more restaurant suggestions


1. How do you say xiaolongbao?
First things first. This impossible looking word is quite easy to say. 
It's shao(rhymes with cow)-long-bao(rhymes with cow). 

Shao-long-bao.


For those studying Chinese, the tones are: xiăolóngbāo.



2. What are xiaolongbao?
Xiaolongbao 小笼包, the soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for, are a miracle of creation and construction - seemingly delicate, semi-transparent dumpling skins are wrapped and neatly pleated around an aromatic filling of pork and a mouthful of hot savory broth. 

The pork filling, seasoned with a little ginger and shaoxing wine, is mixed with gelatinized pork stock that melts on cooking, transforming into a delicious soup. The addition of crab meat and crab roe from the famous Shanghai hairy crab makes for a rich but equally traditional xiaolongbao.

Many wonder how liquid soup manages to get inside a hand-wrapped dumpling. Is it somehow scooped inside as the dumpling is wrapped? Or is it injected using a syringe? The secret, of course, is that the soup is actually a solid at room temperature, melting into a liquid only when the dumplings are steamed at high heat. The soup is essentially a flavoured pork stock or aspic, made with pork skin, chicken bones, ginger, scallions and shaoxing wine, simmered for hours and hours then cooled at room temperature until it sets. Every kitchen has their own secret recipe because the quality of the soup is paramount in a good xiaolongbao.

The word xiăolóngbāo 小笼包 literally means 'small steamer basket buns' and is the most commonly used name for these dumplings. More traditional restaurants may also use the term tāngbāo 汤包, meaning soup dumpling. The only accompaniment needed for xiaolongbao is dark Zhejiang vinegar, although a bowl of clear soup is often eaten alongside.

When you taste a xiaolongbao, the skin or wrapper should be fine and translucent yet strong enough not to break when lifted out of the basket. The meat should be fresh tasting, smooth and savory. Lastly, the all-important soup should be hot, clear, and fragrant of pork. Enjoy!

3. How to eat xiaolongbao: A step-by-step guide


Soup-filled dumplings should be handled with care - the contents are HOT.

You will be given a small circular dish to fill with vinegar form the bottle or teapot on your table, a pair of chopsticks, and a soup spoon. You may also be given a dish of finely shredded ginger to add to the vinegar as desired.


To eat a xiaolongbao, first lift it out of the steamer basket by its strongest part, the topknot (use your spoon for support if needed), and dip it gently into the dish of vinegar.


Resting it back on your spoon, nibble a small hole to let out the steam. Slurp a little soup.


Once it's cooled slightly, eat from the spoon using your chopsticks or throw caution to the wind and put the whole spoonful in your mouth in one go. The savory soup will be scalding hot as you eat.


4. How to order xiaolongbao
Xiaolongbao can be ordered by the basket (long 笼) or serving (fen 份) in practical terms, everyone uses 'serving' or fen.

The number of xiaolongbao in each serving varies with the restaurant and the size of the steamer basket, but is usually between six and twelve.

Although there are countless variations in xiaolongbao fillings, the most popular are pork (zhu rou 猪肉) or a mixture of pork with the meat and roe from Shanghai's famed hairy crab (xiefen 蟹粉). Small street eateries may only serve pork, traditional restaurants usually have both pork and pork/crab/roe, and fancier restaurants may offer novel and non-traditional fillings like chicken, foie gras, or mushroom.

How many servings will you need? That depends entirely on your appetite, but as a guide, four to six xiaolongbao per person is plenty for a snack, and eight to ten per person makes a meal.

Here's an easy ordering guide in English, pinyin and Chinese:

English: pork xiaolongbao
Chinese: zhūròu xiăolóngbāo 猪肉小笼包
Pronunciation: joo-ROW shao-(rhymes with cow)-long-bao (rhymes with cow)


English: crab meat xiaolongbao
Chinese: xièfĕn xiăolóngbāo  蟹粉小笼包
Pronunciation: shee-EH-fun shao-long-bao

English: One serve of xiaolongbao
Chinese: xiăolóngbāo yī fēn 猪肉小笼包一份 
Pronunciation: shao-long-bao EE-fun

English: chopsticks
Chinese: kuàizi 筷子
Pronunciation: KWHY-zuh

English: spoon
Chinese: sháozi 勺子
Pronunciation: SHAO-zuh

English: vinegar
Chinese:  cù 
Pronunciation: TSOOh



5. Where to eat xiaolongbao
1. Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包
Having been in the soup dumpling business for years, Jia Jia Tang Bao is hands down the sentimental favorite of young and old Shanghainese alike. Expect to queue at all hours of the day, but once inside on your small orange stool you can experience what life is like in a goldfish bowl as those waiting outside intermittently press their faces to the glass to see whether you're eating fast enough. Don't rush! Savor the homely ambience and the excellent dumplings.
Jia Jia Tang Bao offer two main types of xiaolongbao, regular pork xiaolongbao, and hairy crab meat xiaolongbao. The former are similar to those found elsewhere, but the crab xiaolongbao are exquisite, stuffed full of tiny shreds of sweet crabmeat, they explode with the flavour of the crab roe.

Price: Crabmeat xiaolongbao 25.5 rmb per serve (12 pieces)


Details:
Jia Jia Tang Bao  佳家汤包
90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
黄河路90近凤阳路
+86 21 6327 6878
Open 7 days, 6.30am - 10pm
English occasionally spoken, English menu (no pictures)
Cash only


2. Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆 The Humble Room Soup Dumpling Eatery 

Tucked away on the working end of one of the French Concession's most beautiful streets (that would be Nanchang Lu of course!), you could well walk past The Humble Room without noticing it amongst a slew of other noodle and dumpling shops. But this place is special - it's where local workers come to tuck into a full steamer basket of xiaolongbao for breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of only six tiny tables.

The proprietor, surly on his best days, may need to be prodded awake to serve you but the xiaolongbao are top-notch. They also serve several noodle dishes.

The Humble Room's xiaolongbao belie the restaurant's name - they're sophisticated little dumplings with strong thin skins, smooth pork filling and a satisfyingly rich broth. And at 6 rmb for a basket of eight, they represent incredible value.


Price: 6 rmb per serve (8 pieces)

Details:
Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆
601 Nanchang Lu, near Xiangyang Lu
南昌路601
(靠近襄阳路)
Open 7 days, 6.30am - 8pm
No English spoken, no English menu
Cash only

3. Din Tai Fung Xintiandi 鼎泰震新天地店 
It's impossible to write about Shanghai's xiaolongbao without mentioning Din Tai Fung, where the humble xiaolongbao is elevated to a culinary art form. Don't be put off by the fact that this chain comes from Taiwan - they have an impeccable pedigree and two of their Hong Kong restaurants were this year awarded a Michelin star. If the Michelin Guide ever makes it to China's mainland, this branch will likely end up with one too.

For some diehard gourmands it's sacrilege to admit you like Din Tai Fung's xiaolongbao, as they pout "too expensive!" "too touristy!" "not Shanghainese!" but for me Din Tai Fung's biggest drawcard has to be its consistency - consistently great xiaolongbao, consistently good service and spotlessly clean, it's also the only place on this list where English is consistently spoken.

Din Tai Fung's dumplings boast the finest wrappers, all rolled individually by hand so that they're thinner at the edges and stronger in the middle, the smoothest pork filling and the most refined of all the soups. In addition, Din Tai Fung offers that rarity, a totally vegetarian xiaolongbao filled with assorted mushrooms, and some very non-traditional fillings like goose liver and chicken.

Din Tai Fung also offers a wide selection of more substantial hot and cold dishes, wine and beer, and desserts.

Price: 29 rmb for five, 58 rmb for ten pork xiaolongbao


Details:
Din Tai Fung Xintiandi  鼎泰震新天地店
2F, House 6, South Block Xintiandi,
Lane 123 Xinye Lu, Shanghai
上海市兴业路123弄新天地广场南里6号楼2-11A单元
+8621 6385 8378
Open 7 days from 10am - 12mn
English spoken, English menu with pictures
Cash, credit cards accepted



4. Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant 南翔馒頭店
With a history of over a hundred years in the xiaolongbao business, Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant now has multiple locations in multiple countries.  This restaurant is one of their nicest and its location, just a stone's throw from the bright lights of Nanjing Xi Lu, makes it a perfect pitstop after a heavy morning of shopping.

Nanxiang is solid, clean and well-run, exactly the sort of place you might take your work colleagues or your parents-in-law for lunch.

Their crab xiaolongbao are exceptional, with the rich yellow roe clearly visible through the semi-transparent skins, and droplets of oily melted roe visible in the soup.

They also offer a full menu of non-dumpling dishes, including many Shanghainese specialties like fried glutinous rice slices with pork and ji cai vegetable - a chewy, delicious home-style dish.

Details:
Nanxiang Mantou Dian 南翔馒頭店
Branches all over Shanghai including:
2nd Floor, 269 Wujiang Lu, Jing'an District
静安区吴江路2692
+8621 6136 1428
Open 7 days from 11am - 8.30pm
English sometimes spoken, picture menu
Cash only


5. Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
Those small and miraculous soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for probably didn't originate in Shanghai. They came from a place called Nanxiang, considered by many to be the ancestral home, even the spiritual home of xiaolongbao. Once, long ago, Nanxiang was a happily separate little town south-west of Shanghai, but as the city sent out tentacles of roads, factories and apartment blocks in every direction it choked and then digested many smaller towns in its wake. Nanxiang was completely subsumed into modern-day Shanghai, and is now relegated to the status of an outer suburb. It even has its own stop on the Shanghai subway system (Nanxiang, Line 11).

But Nanxiang doesn't feel like the outer something of somewhere, in fact it feels like the centre of somewhere. This is because Nanxiang holds tight to one important quality that sets it apart from all the other grey and gritty outer suburbs. It is still a major mecca for xiaolongbao lovers, who make the pilgrimage from all over China to get to the source. Whole streets are lined with dumpling shops rolling, stuffing and twisting xialongbao into shape. 

Outside Song Ji restaurant, stacks of steamer baskets full of plump xialongbao wait to be cooked in the giant outdoor steamer. Inside, round wooden tables are filled with people dipping their xiaolongbao in dark vinegar then slurping up the filling. The menu runs to two choices of xiaolongbao - pork, or pork and crab, and five extras, all soups.

These xiaolongbao are justifiably famous, but they have a simple, homemade quality. The skins are thicker than those at say, Din Tai Fung, because they're hand pressed rather than rolled, and the filling is simpler and more rustic with less seasoning and more meat. The soup, particularly of the pork and crab xiaolongbao, is delicious and dangerously hot.

Take-away packs of pre-cooked xioalongbao are available too, packed inside two bamboo shells to protect them, like a giant clam. They re-heat pretty well in a steamer at home, but have less soup inside as it tends to absorb into the skin after the first cooking.


Details:
Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
210 Guyiyuan Lu, Jiading District
嘉定区古猗园路210

Approx 30 minutes by car from downtown Shanghai, or easily reached by subway Line 11 (stop: Nanxiang). The restaurants are less than five minutes' walk from the subway.

+8621 5917 4019
Open 7 days from 8am - 8pm
No English spoken, no English menu
Cash only


6. More Information
For more Shanghai xiaolongbao eateries, or to find a xiaolongbao restaurant in other Chinese cities, try Dianping. In Shanghai, all Shanghainese restaurants serve xiaolongbao - try Old Jesse, New Jesse, or Fu Chun.

If you'd like to learn how to make your own xiaolongbao while visiting Shanghai, the Chinese Cooking Workshop runs a xiaolongbao class once a month, next on April 17th, 2013.

Xiaolongbao recipes can be found here and here and here if you'd like to try making them at home. My recipe for the pork aspic can be found here.

Got a favorite of your own? Share it in the comments below!