Xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s incredible soup-filled dumplings, don’t come any more classic than those at Jia Jia Tang Bao, eaten at the original restaurant in the back streets north of People’s Square. If you go there right now in the middle of hairy crab season, you’ll find the best hairy crab xiaolongbao you ever tasted at prices so low you’ll think they left an extra digit off the bill. Really.
Xiaolongbao come in two main varieties – pork, and pork mixed with hairy crab meat and/or crab roe. Right now, October to December, is hairy crab season, and the little dark green crustaceans with hairy black pompoms on the end of their claws have arrived in Shanghai from nearby Yangcheng Lake and surrounds. Restaurant fliers featuring eight course hairy crab feasts come through the letterbox every day. Tubs and tanks full of hairy crabs are on every street in the city, the crabs sitting mutely with their ridiculous pompom claws tied folded close to their bodies.
A month ago my favorite dry goods shop on Wulumuqi Lu had every item temporarily removed to make way for a dozen or so glass-topped barrels full of hairy crabs. The nuts and dried fruits will make a comeback in December when crab season is over, but for now there is only one item for sale – hairy crab. Last week I walked past as a delivery of crabs was sitting in a plastic crate on the pavement. Clambering over those underneath a few brave crab souls made their escape, falling ungracefully onto the pavement before righting themselves and making off towards the traffic…..they were snatched from the jaws of certain death under the wheels of a motorcycle and plonked back in a barrel, temporarily delayed from a tasty end in someone’s kitchen.
Jia Jia doesn’t look like much from the street but is a huge favorite of Shanghainese locals and travelling foodies alike, and in hairy crab season its popularity goes through the roof. After tasting their crab xiaolongbao you’ll know why. You’ll need to queue for a table no matter what the time of day, frequently being required to defend your queue position against stealth attacks from sneaky Chinese tourists who try and inveigle a position ahead of you. Don’t worry, the front desk inside the door is manned by an eagle-eyed woman who will yell at them and send them back to the end of the line, shame-faced.
While you wait, choose from either the outside menu or the inside menu hanging on the wall behind the counter, and when you finally make it to the front of the line order and pay before being shown to a seat with your docket. In many places – Jia Jia included – xiaolongbao are also known as tāng bāo (汤包 soup dumplings). Choose from ‘pure delicious fresh meat soup dumplings’ at 10.5 yuan ($1.50) for a dozen, shrimp, chicken, or even the luxurious ‘pure crab meat soup dumplings at 99 yuan ($16.00). I highly recommend foregoing all others for the signature dish – xièfĕn xiānròu tāngbāo (蟹粉鲜肉汤包 hairy crab and pork xiaolongbao), at 25.5 yuan ($4.00) for a dozen.
Once seated at one of only ten or so tiny formica tables, you can people-watch while you wait for your number to be called. Old Shanghainese couples sharing a steamer basket of xiaolongbao for breakfast. Trendy kids from Taiwan, with angular haircuts, outsize glasses, and harem pants with hi-tops taking iPhone photographs of one another. Somewhat disconcertingly, the hungry diners lined up outside tend to frequently press their faces to the window to check on your progress. Ignore them.
At last! Your dozen crab meat and pork xiaolongbao arrive. The lid comes off the basket to reveal twelve fine specimens resting on a woven grass basket lining, the yellow crab roe clearly visible through the dumpling skins. There are two choices of dipping sauce – black vinegar, or golden rice vinegar with shreds of ginger. The latter goes perfectly with the more subtle flavor of the crab meat, and is the same accompaniment to steamed whole hairy crab (see this post on eating hairy crab at quirky Yong Xing Restaurant).
The xiaolongbao are perfect – strong fine translucent skins, an explosion of delicate crab meat and yolky rich crab roe, a touch of smooth pork, and a mouthful of hot broth filled with oily gold droplets of melted roe. Incredible. Before you know it all twelve dumplings are sitting happily in your stomach. Worth every minute of the half hour wait.
While you eat and enjoy you can also watch the frenetic activity in the open kitchen as a team of women work in unison to make each basket of xiaolongbao to order. Tiny nubbins of dough are rolled individually into paper thin skins, then stuffed with filling, pleated closed and placed carefully in a steamer basket. Basket after basket, all day long, from kitchen to steamer to grateful mouths. Take a big appetite when you go.
Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包
90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
Ph +86 21 6327 6878
Open 7 days, 6.30am – 10pm or until sold out