This is the meal I've been waiting for—the main reason I felt
compelled to make my wife re-visit Shanghai, in fact. Ever since having
my first taste of a Xiao Long Bao—variously referred to as "soup
dumplings" or "juicy steamed buns" on American Chinese menus—I've
yearned to taste them at the source in Shanghai.
Why the love? Well, if you've yet to experience XLB (as those cool
kids in the know like to refer to them in tweets), they're made by
gently folding a gelatin-rich filling into a thin round of stretchy
wheat dough. The dough gets gathered up and pleated into a cute little
swirled bun with a tiny nipple at the top. When the dumpling is steamed,
the gelatin-rich broth in the filling melts out, filling up the
delicately steamed wrapper with savory soup, the meat forming a tender,
springy ball inside. To eat them you pick them up with chopsticks, dip
them gingerly into sauce,* then proceed by either nibbling off a corner
of dough and sucking out the soup, or by downing the whole thing in one
go, letting it burst in your mouth like a savory Chinese Gusher.
*Don't you just love a good Tom Swiftie?
But in Shanghai, XLB are only half of the soup dumping story. Sheng
Jian Bao—fried soup dumplings—while a ubiquitous breakfast food or snack
in Shanghai for at least the last century, live in the shadow of their
far more famous steamed counterpart. This is unfortunate, because if
anything. SJB are even tastier than XLB—at least when made right.
Sheng Jian Bao start with a slightly thicker dough that, just like
XLB, get pleated around a gelatin-rich filling. They're cooked in large,
covered cast iron pans filled with just enough water to steam them
through. As the water evaporates, the dumplings begin to fry on their
bottom surface. You end up with a tender, steamed, juice-filled bun with
a golden-brown, crisply fried bottom.
The problem is that in the US, it's much more difficult to find good
SJB than good XLB. Poor SJB are doughy, tough, and lacking in juice.
Even good ones, like the Fried Tiny Buns with Pork at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe (who also happen to serve the best soup dumplings in Manhattan's Chinatown) are hit and miss—sometimes they're tender and juicy, other times they're doughy and dry inside.
Just like XLB, Sheng Jian Bao have an extremely short half life. If
you aren't getting them fresh from the steamer, then you may as well not
get them at all.
Fortunately, there's one street in Shanghai where you can taste both of these local specialties, their doorways just meters apart.
Jia Jia Xiao Long Bao
Jia Jia Xiao Long Bao,
located at number 90 on Huanghe Road (an easy walk from People's Park)
is a Shanghai institution, serving what many claim are the best soup
dumplings in the city. We went on the advice of Ken Phang. A Serious
Eater and long-time Shanghai resident, Ken makes a living opening
restaurants in Shanghai, so he knows what he's talking about.
Jia Jia is all business, with a short line out the door, a short menu
printed on the wall, and a cashier who takes orders and money before
you get seated. You'd better know what you want before you sit down,
because after you're seated, you'll have to eat, get up, wait on line
again, and re-order if you want more.
I've noticed that many buildings in China have the same pattern of
vertically-oriented, non-staggered, shiny white tiles on their facades
that makes strolling down the street feel like you're walking inside a
very large men's locker room. Jia Jia has those same tiles on the inside
as well, which makes you feel like you're eating inside a men's locker
room. Which is to say, people are here for the food and the food only.
After briefly consulting our Chinese-English dictionary app on my
phone, we successfully placed an order for a dozen pork dumplings, a
dozen pork and crab dumplings, some sweet ginger sauce, and a bowl of
what I believe to be egg and seaweed soup.
As you walk past the register, you see a mini factory line of a half dozen people making dumplings.
Two people stand at one end of the table, tearing dough into small balls
and passing them on to the next two folks, who roll out the soft, white
dough into thin wrappers.
The wrappers are passed to the final set of hands, who use a thin pastry
brush to dollop some raw filling into the center of the dough before
crimping it up into a tiny purse.
For anyone who's tried to make their own soup dumplings,
now is the moment to be impressed. These guys are pros, churning out
perfect little purses in seconds flat. Faster than the Latino prep cooks
at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe. Faster than the folks with sneeze-guards in
the hospital-clean kitchens of Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung. Super, super fast. Now is when your mouth should start to water just a little bit.
We were seated and almost immediately brought a bowl of the soup.
Oops. Turns out I accidentally ordered the egg and blood soup, not the
seaweed soup. Normally this wouldn't be a huge issue—I actually quite
like blood—but I was very recently diagnosed with hemochromatosis, which
means that I need to keep a watch on my iron intake. Blood is just
about the worst thing I can eat. I ate one cube for the sake of research
(tasty enough, though the broth was a little thin and bland), then let
the soup be before the main event was delivered.
Let me cut to the chase: the pork dumplings at Jia Jia are the best soup dumplings I've had, period. Better than Din Tai Fung
(at least the branch I visited in Tokyo), even (and at about a quarter
of the price, I might add). Thin skins with just a slight bit of
stretchy pull to them, tender, fatty pork with very minimal seasonings,
and a broth with enough rich gelatin to get your lips sticky as you
slurp them down.
The broth itself has quite a bit of sweetness going on, and this is
compounded by the excellent ginger sauce, made with young ginger—not too
spicy—vinegar, and sugar.
The crab and pork dumplings, which cost a premium, were also the best
crab and pork soup dumplings I've had, but that's not saying much: crab
soup dumplings inevitably taste like pre-cooked or canned crab with its
unmistakable metallic, fishy tang. No thanks.
With our bellies full of XLB, we headed across the street to No. 97 for a taste of Sheng Jian Bao.