Back to blog index

God’s First Visit to Yu Gardens, Shanghai

I love that after five years, China still has the capacity to surprise me. 
A few weeks ago we visited Yu Gardens in Shanghai to see the Chinese New Year lantern display. For my girls it has become an annual rite of passage, just like visiting the Myer department store was when I was a kid, to see their Christmas window display. Every year they would have a different spectacular theme, my child’s mind thrilled with the colours and imaginary possibilities of the little story in each window.
Chinese New Year is the same for Chinese kids – each year they visit the temple at Yu Gardens with their parents to see the exciting new lantern displays for Chinese New Year, usually followed by something good to eat. Ordinary lanterns these most definitely are not – huge and spectacular 3-D masterpieces of technicolour construction, they are as impressive in the daylight as they are lit up at night.

Year of the Tiger, 2010, Year of the Rabbit, 2011
Year of the Dragon 2012
(I missed Year of the Snake in 2013 because we were in Australia. Also, I don’t like snakes, having grown up in a country that considers itself home to seven of the world’s ten deadliest of that species.)
One of the highlights of the lantern display is the narrative tableaux floating in the waters around the Huxinting Tea House at the centre of the gardens. Past lantern epics have included the story of the Yellow Emperor’s flight into immortality from the top of Huang Shan, and the parable of Confucius’ meeting with Lao Tzu.
This year was different though. This year, the inspirational story for thousands of Chinese people at the biggest celebration of the lunar calendar and in the grounds of a Taoist temple was….Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 
According to the very economically worded placard to one side of the scene:
Cursed forever.
And that will be the beginning and end, the Genesis to Exodus if you will, of most of the visitors’ understanding of the Story of Creation. 
A dude in a red dress, a snake, an apple tree, all the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and a pair of very very pale and awkward humans.

 Okay then.

Thank goodness around the corner everything returned to normal – there were a lot of reassuring horse motifs, and plenty of honest to goodness regular lanterns.

Happy (belated) Year of the Horse everyone! Here’s to the joy of constant surprises. 

Shanghai Dumpling Wars: A New Contender Emerges in Paradise Dynasty

There’s an open battle being waged, probably for centuries now, over who makes Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao
Not sure what xiaolongbao are? They’re Shanghai’s famous soup-filled dumplings, small steamed dumpling miracles that defy the laws of nature by having hot soup held delicately inside them, along with a fragrant mix of pork and seasonings. And Shanghai locals feel very, very passionate about their xiaolongbao and who makes the best ones.
(If you’re still not sure you could check out Xiaolongbao – The Complete Guide)
The battle really comes down to what you, as an eater, prefer.
Do you crave authenticity or novelty? 
Do you like your dumpling skins rolled or hand-flattened?
Do Shanghainese people make the best xiaolongbao? Or can anyone do it?
Paradise Dynasty challenges all these assumptions. Coming from Singapore, where they are already an established brand, they have gone straight for the jugular by opening their flagship Chinese store in Shanghai and – wait for it – calling it Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao. Cheeky. That’s like opening your first macaron shop in Paris, right next to Laduree, and calling it Fiona: Legend of Macarons
Just a little bit self-indulgent, but why shouldn’t you be when you have the behemoth Paradise restaurant group behind you?

Their signature dish is a basket of eight rainbow-hued xiaolongbao (RMB 68) with novel fillings:

Foie Gras (tan)
Black truffle (black)
Crab Roe (orange)
Ginseng (green)
Mozzarella (yellow)
Garlic (grey)
Szechuan (sic) (dark pink)
Original Pork (white)

The dumpling wrappers are very fine, soft, and strong, and the eight colours looked beautiful sitting on their linen cloth inside the basket.

I tried the original steamed pork flavour first, as a true test of xiaolongbao-ness. It was good – plenty of fragrant soup, a little ginger, a smooth pork filling. The ‘szechuan’ dumpling was an explosion of chili and flowery Sichuan pepper, although the pepper made the filling a little gritty. The foie gras and crab roe dumplings were rich and full of flavour, the garlic and ginseng dumplings more subtle but still tasty. I wouldn’t revisit the mozzarella dumpling though, with its very odd taste and texture, but my girls like it the best of all of them.

The stand out for me was the black truffle xiaolongbao, rich, dark, deeply truffley and intensely satisfying. After trying just one I ordered a whole extra basket of (RMB 65). Any flavour can be ordered separately as a basket of six or ten dumplings.

Paradise Dynasty serves other dishes too – la mian or pulled noodles, which seems odd (given that la mian originated in central China, a Hui Muslim dish, and xiaolongbao are from eastern China’s Nanxiang village, now part of Shanghai). But the menu tells us that Executive Chef Ge Sheng is a specialty la mian chef, and it’s the female sous chef, Yan Wei, who knows a thing or two about xiaolongbao.
While waiting for our table I watched the chefs in the kitchen making the dumplings, and was amazed to see that they weighed the filling for every single dumpling on a digital scale. That exactitude is rare and spoke of very high standards in the kitchen.

It’s a shame then that the same care and attention isn’t taken in the dining room – we waited 45 minutes for a table on a regular weekday lunchtime and when we did arrive at our table it was full of dirty dishes from the previous diners and took fifteen minutes to be cleared after three requests from me and one from a neighbouring diner. The restaurant is always this busy, so I’m told, so it should be staffed accordingly. 
The xiaolongbao were delicious, but hard to eat without chopsticks, a spoon, a dish for vinegar, or a bowl. These arrived on request, one at a time, five minutes apart, so by the time we had all the necessary eating utensils the dumplings were cold. A great shame.
So are these Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Paradise Dynasty: Legend of Xiaolongbao – Details
IFC Mall, Lujiazui, Pudong
Level Three, Shop 36
Ph +86 21 58342291
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner, last orders 9.30pm.

Shanghai Street Food #35 Pressed Pomegranate Juice: Shiliu Zhi 石榴汁

Street Foods are back! Today’s post is unforgivably short because I’m travelling – off to China for Chinese New Year! And I know those of you who are hard at work sometimes only have time for just a bite of China rather than a whole meal.
I think 2013 was street food’s year in every sense – the first International Street Food Congress was held in Singapore, and cities all over the world changed their minds about the perceived ‘risks’  of street food and approved legislation for street food trucks and street food precincts, bringing back a vivid street food scene to cities like Glasgow and Brisbane.
In China, of course, where street food has been part of a thriving food culture for centuries, that’s nothing new. But with tough new food safety laws in China being enacted with heavy justice, street food vendors may find 2014 the year they struggle to survive against the heavy hand of the law.  
So let’s celebrate street food, and support its ongoing role as an integral part of Chinese food culture, but also support it becoming cleaner and safer.
Today’s Shanghai Street Food is seasonal and special – fresh, tart, sweet pomegranate juice – shiliu zhi 石榴汁. The pomegranate vendors with their glass cases packed tightly with ripe pomegranates start to appear in Shanghai in autumn as the first pomegranates arrive from far western Xinjiang. 

The pomegranates have paler flesh, the colour of pale pink petals with blushes of rose, but are very juicy and have small seeds. Pomegranate seeds are not used in Chinese cooking but the juice is a popular seasonal treat for its value as a blood tonic, and the skin is used in traditional Chinese medicine for many ailments.

Each glass of juice is pressed freshly using a hand-operated press mounted on top of a tray back tricycle – it takes about three whole fruit for one glass.
The taste is fresh and acidic but also surprisingly sweet, and soothes the throat on those early cold dry days of winter. Come to think of it, it’s probably a very good tonic for polluted air…these vendors might be doing a roaring trade this year!
Pomegranate juice: About 10 yuan ($1.50) for a glass.
Shanghai Street Foods – The Complete Guide:
Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi – Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin

Number 34  Jidan Bing – savoury egg puffs
Number 35  Shiliu Zhi – Fresh pomegranate juice
Number 36  Dabing – big crispy pancakes

Chance Encounters, Shanghai

This is a warmhearted story of architecture, history, love and a chance encounter in a Shanghai stairwell.

I really hadn’t expected to be invited into Yang Mei Ying and her husband Ong Zen’s apartment at first meeting, but here I was already sitting stiffly on their sofa alongside my friend E, being fed sweet winter cumquats.

“Eat! Eat!” Yang Mei Ying urged.

There were small piles of pill packets all over the apartment, along with sheets of discount vouchers clipped from newspapers and bowls of fruit resting on the dresser and next to the television. The universal signature of the elderly – pills and fruit. 

“I’m not feeling so well today” Yang Mei Ying told us. “Some stiffness in my neck. I’m getting old!”

She was 79 years old and wore a hand-knitted vest in brightest orange over a red turtleneck and trousers. Her body was slight under her heavy woollens and she moved slowly. Her husband Ong Zen, 83, was still in his pyjamas, although it was hard to tell if they were sleeping pyjamas or Shanghai-style lounging pyjamas. They looked like sleeping pyjamas – faded striped flannel, worn with a fishing vest over the top, the kind with many pockets. 

My dear friend E had first met the couple two weeks before. E’s longstanding interest in Shanghai’s old buildings, combined with a refreshing boldness common to Americans, means she often wandered down one of Shanghai’s thousand lane ways, found an interesting old building and walked into the foyer. And sometimes, it must be said, up the stairs. And occasionally (it must also be said) into people’s homes, but only if asked. Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen had invited her into their home after finding her exploring the stairwell of their building with her camera.

These old houses are masterpieces of architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, mansions of Shanghai’s wealthy elite. In the 1950s many were relinquished unwillingly by their owners, requisitioned by the Chinese government for mass housing. Their architectural magnificence was carved up into tiny one room apartments – single bedrooms became homes of entire families, with bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one space. Grand dining rooms suffered the addition of a privy and had their fireplaces used for cooking.

In most of these houses the original features and details have largely been lost – perhaps one or two doorways, an occasional old banister, a carved lintel, faint whispers of a grand past. Now the multiple apartments are concreted into the inside of the building, like barnacles inside a bottle, and renovated over and again, each renovation losing more and more of the original sense of the house. You have to look hard to re-imagine how they might once have looked.

When E found the house Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen were living in she realised immediately it was that rare gem – a 1923 mansion house completely untouched since its original 1950s carve-up. Everything inside – from the ornate front doors to the inlaid mosaic tile floor, the moulded plaster ceilings, the carved wooden banisters, and the decorative wood paneling rising from the floor to head height – was completely original. It took her breath away.

The upstairs hallway floors are all original parquetry. Downstairs the carved wall panels have suffered the addition of nailed-on letterboxes.
The magnificent interior stairwell.

Not that E had apparently been the first to discover the house:

“People come here all the time. They pretend to be friendly but they just want to buy the whole building!” Yang Mei Ying said. “I don’t let them inside!”
E is incapable of pretence and thanks to her openness and big smile the couple had, in fact, led her right through their doorway. The photo portrait she took of them that day, and brought back later framed, had pride of place on top of the television. E thought I might like to meet them, so here I was, hearing their history for the first time.
They moved into the apartment after their marriage in the early 1950s. Yang Mei Ying waved to a photo of the two of them, high on a wall near the ceiling. Ong Zen was in military uniform.

“He was a soldier, yes.” Yang Mei Ying  looked over at her husband, smiling. Ong Zen was almost completely deaf so he smiled beatifically during the conversation no matter what was said, his hands resting in his lap.

Ah. The Beijing Lu Military Base was nearby, and perhaps explained why the young couple were assigned an apartment in such a grand old house, and on the top floor at that. I wondered if it made their lives easier during the troubled years, and I had to assume it had. But no one really escaped trouble in those times.

“I remember that photo,” Yang Mei Ying went on. “I didn’t have a chance to dress up for it! I was just wearing my outdoor clothes! The photographer needed someone to write for him and Ong Zen had beautiful handwriting, so he said we could have a portrait in exchange. No time to prepare!” She shook her head. “But he did have such beautiful handwriting” she said, and looked fondly over at Ong Zen.

Now they had been married more than sixty years, with two daughters and two grandchildren. They seemed so caring towards one another, and the daughters still took turn about every night after work to cook for their parents and spend the night sleeping in the apartment to keep watch over them, despite having their own families to worry about.
Yang Mei Ying’s and Ong Zen’s own bedroom had been renovated by adding a floor that divided the room into two levels. The high ceilings in these old houses meant it was possible to create a low-ceilinged upstairs and downstairs inside one room, the upstairs level usually accessed by a ladder. Their daughters – thankfully not tall – had spent their lives in twin beds directly above their parents’ double bed, and still slept there every alternating night. 

The kitchen, shared with three other apartments, was reclaimed from one of the original bathrooms, complete with original bath.

Yang Mei Ying told us their daughters had bought them a modern apartment, with an inside bathroom, a proper kitchen, and air-conditioning. Everything needed to make their lives easier, and safer. Most of the apartments in the house were now abandoned and in terrible disrepair, and the few that were inhabited seemed to have dubious occupants.
“So what makes you stay here?” I asked her, suspecting the answer would be proximity to her children and friends.

Yang Mei Ying didn’t pause for a second. “I stay for the floors” she said, sliding her slippered foot across the time-polished parquetry. “For the beautiful, beautiful floors.”

(A big, gigantic thanks to E, firstly for taking me along to meet Ong Zen and Yang Mei Ying, and also for lending me the use of her camera when I discovered I had left my battery in the battery charger at home….)

Shanghai Street Food #34 Egg Puffs: Jidan Bing 鸡蛋饼

Breakfast is when street food always beckons me – the early morning life of the streets is just beginning but already the street food vendors have lifted their awnings and are doing a brisk trade in hot soy milk, steaming baozi and crispy you tiao. So many people buy breakfast on the street I actually wonder if any Shanghai locals breakfast at home.
This street food treat hails from Nanjing, but you’ll find it on many early morning street food corners in Shanghai and Beijing. 
It’s one of many kinds of bing 饼 – meaning it’s flat and round. You’re probably already familiar with jian bing (rolled savoury breakfast pancakes) and cong you bing (scallion oil pancakes).
This one’s a little different – it’s made of the same yeast dough as you tiao crispy fried dough sticks, so as soon as it hits the oil on the griddle the dough puffs up with big bubbles of air that are trapped as it cooks, giving it a texture like fried sourdough bread.
On top of this an egg is cracked, scallions added and the egg yolk broken. Then the whole thing is flipped so both sides get a crisp finish.
To serve, the vendor will add some hoisin sauce and fold the bing in half to make it easier to eat. Eggy, chewy, light and puffy.

How Many of These Shanghai Street Foods Have You Tried?

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi – Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin

‘Cold Wontons’ Noodle Shop – One of Shanghai’s Best Noodle Joints

The sign on the door said simply: “Cold Wontons.” Hardly an appetising name.
My Chinese friend had described it to me like this: 
“Near the corner of Changhua Lu and Changping Lu there are two noodles shops on opposite sides of the street – one does hot noodles. One does cold noodles. Neither have a name. But they’re really, really good. You should go.”
“Cold Wontons” turned out to be the de facto name of this totally nameless noodle joint in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, undistinguishable – from the outside at least – from other noodle joints in the area. 
But what every customer knew is that this place cooked very authentic, very high quality Shanghainese cold noodles. The cold wontons? Just a side dish. Lord knows how it came to be spelled out in fat red Chinese characters on the door.
I walked in and tried to order at the small cashier’s desk near the door, behind which was seated a lady in her early sixties with a wide smile and very permed hair. She spoke barely a word of Chinese, and not even a skerrick of English. This was a Shanghainese noodle joint, and Shanghainese was the language spoken. I failed to understand a thing she said.
The menu, otherwise known as the jiàmùbiǎo 价目表 or price list, was pinned to the wall behind her, and detailed all the dishes or toppings available to eat with cold noodles – fried pork cutlets, spicy meat, spicy sauce, bean sprouts, white chicken. You chose a topping, a bowl of cold noodles, and as many side dishes as you liked, and paid at the counter before taking a seat.
My friend had told me what to try – the eel noodles, specialty of the house.

The only problem for me and my very Australian-accented Chinese was that the ‘eel thread cold noodles’ – shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 , a dish of fine eel slivers, sounded exactly the same to the cashier as the ‘three thread cold noodles’ – sānsī lěngmiàn 三丝冷面, a totally different dish of shreds of bamboo shoot, pork and green pepper.

Our confused encounter went like this:

“I’ll have the eel thread cold noodles.”

“Three thread cold noodles?”

“No, no, eel thread.”

“Yes, I understand, three thread.”

“No! No….EEL thread.”


I was obviously struggling until a customer, bilingual in Chinese and Shanghainese, came to my aid. 
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“I want the eel noodles” I told him. He smiled.
“And how many liang of noodles do you want? Two or three?”
“Three” I said, feeling hungry (a liang 两 is a Chinese measure of weight, about 50g, often used for noodles and also dumplings – a standard serve is two to three liang).
He turned to the cashier and in rapid Shanghainese told her what I wanted. 
“Aaah!” she said, smiling even more widely. She clearly approved of my choice. Or maybe she was just pleased to get me out of the queue and into a seat.
Clearly I needed assistance with every step of my lunch, and so the cashier assigned a matronly aunty to help me. She took my ticket from me and passed it through the small window to the staff in the glassed-in kitchen, a metre away.
Then while I waited she interrogated me with the help of the bilingual customer, who, like the relaxed Shanghainese gentleman he was, had come out for lunch in his pyjamas.
“How long have you lived in Shanghai?”
“Are you married?” 
“How many children?”
At my answer – two daughters – the aunty, our translator and everyone else in the cramped space made appreciative noises.
“How come you can’t speak Shanghainese?”
A fair question. But after four years of struggling with Chinese, Shanghainese still eluded me.
Then, thank goodness, the noodles arrived.
Slivers of sweet ginger. Pieces of tasty, soft, oily eel. Shreds of bamboo shoot. Little wilted, caramelised pieces of scallion. All swimming in the most marvellous sweet, oily, gingery, soy braised sauce.
And the noodles – fine wheat noodles, a little flat rather than round, cold and firm to the bite, served in a dish with a splash of light brown vinegar in the bottom and a slick of sesame sauce on the top.
Aunty came and sat next to me, and told me I could eat the two dishes separately or mix them together. Up to me.
I tried the eels first – soft, salty, sweet and gingery all at once with the wonderful richness of the eel. Magnificent. Then I tried it mixed with the cold noodles, and the firm bite of the noodles gave each mouthful a contrast in textures. Amazing.
All around me conversations in Shanghainese were being carried out to the enjoyable slurp of really great noodles.

On my next visit I had more time to study the menu and figure out the other noodle toppings and extra dishes available.
From front to back:
dòuyár lěngmiàn 豆芽冷面 – shreds of green pepper and pork with bean sprouts 3 yuan
ròuwán 肉丸 meatballs 5 yuan
dàpái 大排 big crispy fried pork chops 7.5 yuan
sùjī 素鸡 white chicken 2 yuan

lěng húntun 冷馄饨 cold wontons 4 yuan/liang

hébāodàn 荷包蛋 fried egg 2 yuan

sāndélì 三得利 suntory beer 3 yuan san
kělè 可乐 cola 2 yuan
I tried the three thread noodles just for fun (nice, but not as good as the eel noodles) and the cold wontons. The wontons, at least, were utterly fabulous, full of chives and pork and served firm and cold with vinegar and sesame sauce. 
Aunty even let me give my ticket to the kitchen all by myself.
Cold Wontons (um, not it’s real name)
379 Changhua Lu, near Changping Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
Signature dish: shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 eel thread cold noodles

Order as ‘shan si liang liang’ for two liang of noodles (18 yuan) or ‘shan si san liang’ for three liang of noodles (20 yuan) 

Open 7 days. No phone.
上海市静安区昌化路379号, 近昌平路。

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). 


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)

Jia Jia Tang Bao  佳家汤包
90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu
+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)

Loushi Tangbao Guan 陋室汤包馆
601 Nanchang Lu, near Xiangyang Lu
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

Din Tai Fung Xintiandi  鼎泰震新天地店

2F, House 6, South Block Xintiandi,
Lane 123 Xinye Lu, Shanghai
+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.
Nanxiang Mantou Dian 南翔馒頭店
Branches all over Shanghai including:
2nd Floor, 269 Wujiang Lu, Jing’an District
+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.

Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao 南翔小笼馆
210 Guyiyuan Lu, Jiading District

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!

Shanghai Street Food #32 Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken 椒盐排条

Excited as a small child I flew into Shanghai last week on a whirlwind five day visit for the Shanghai International Literary Festival, and of course squeezed in a great deal of street food during my stay – starting with xiaolongbao, and fried radish cakes topped with chili sauce, and ending with these crispy, spicy fried chicken strips.

I was invited to moderate a Literary Lunch session at this year’s festival with author Audra Ang and her recently released book To The People Food Is Heavena memoir of her years as an Associated Press journalist in China covering major stories like the Sichuan earthquake, the outbreak of SARS and the plight of pro-democracy dissidents, while connecting with the people she met through memorable shared meals.

The invitation came at a perfect moment, lifting me out of a dreadful bout of homesickness (for China) and an increasing and confusing sense of ‘What am I doing here?’ (in Australia). By going back to Shanghai for a visit I could avoid thinking about that question for a while longer and just enjoy good food and the company of friends without a head filled with the complications and daily grind of getting our lives in order after moving houses, countries, schools and jobs.

It was a great honour to participate in the festival and meet the author whose book I had enjoyed reading so much. As it turns out, Audra and I are equally passionate about food in general and about street food in particular, and following the Literary Lunch (where seventy of us listened to Audra read from her book and I asked her questions about it) we led a street food tour for a group of twelve hungry and adventurous festival attendees.

In preparation, as soon as Audra touched down from the USA we headed straight to Sipailou Lu for an afternoon of ‘research’ for our tour the following day. I’ve done so much research on street food I truly think they’re going to give me a professorship quite soon.

This Sichuan salt and pepper fried chicken was one of the first foods we ‘researched’ and hell it was good.

I confess I rarely eat chicken on the street because it breaks one of my Dr Fiona Street Food Safety Rules. These rules are entirely in my head, mind you, and I’ll be writing about them in an upcoming post, but they’re all about getting the maximum enjoyment from street foods, with minimum risk. Chicken is often too close to the risky side for my liking, but as I smelled the tantalising smell and saw the crisp golden pieces, my resolve collapsed. What are rules for if not to break now and again?

The tiny open air stall on Guangqi Lu was nothing more than a table filled with ingredients, a gas-powered wok, and a sign that detailed all the possible permutations of fried chicken you could order – chicken strips, legs or wings, all with Sichuan pepper and salt. There was a naked light bulb on a wire so cooking could continue after dark, and the husband and wife team manning the stall had the division of labour completely sorted – he cooked, she took the orders and the money.

The smells coming from the fried chicken were intoxicating, and there was already a long queue of locals eager for a plate of the crispy spicy chicken strips.

Most customers ordered the jiaoyan pai tiao 椒盐排条 – Sichuan pepper and salt chicken sticks. Strips of boneless chicken were crumbed, and thrown into a wok of boiling oil where they sizzled, crisped and browned. While they cooked, the flavoursome salt and pepper mixture was cooked in a second wok – finely sliced scallions and red onion, chopped garlic, and dried chilli flakes were thrown in by the handful and fried up with ground Sichuan pepper and salt.

The seasoned aroma made all of us impatient for our turn. The fried chicken, drained of oil, was now tossed with this salty, spicy, garlicky mixture to coat it with plenty of flavour, and handed to us in a bowl with toothpicks to daintily pick up the pieces.

One serve cost an unbelievable 5 yuan (80 cents), and many of those lining up were taking the chicken home for dinner.

I bit into a piece – at once crunchy, salty, oily and spiced, it was the intense hit of salty garlic I loved, little crackly bits of garlic and fried scallion amongst the crunchy outide of the chicken.

The next day we took our crowd of hungry food-lovers along the same street and fed them spicy fried chicken, dumplings, stinky tofu, three delicacies rice, wonton soup, sweet treats and freshly peeled pineapple wedges. They were an incredibly adventurous group of women, trying everything on offer – we had a ball eating our way through two long streets over several hours, with Audra and I explaining each food they tried. No better way to spend a day really!

Street Foods of Shanghai!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Can Someone Please Let Me Know When My Good Luck Is About To Run Out?

It’s been quite the week.

Not one, but three extraordinary and amazing things have happened one after the other, bang, bang, bang, and I’m beginning to worry that my overflowing Good Luck will cause some Bad Luck to sit up and pay attention, hoping to get in on the act. I suspect, on reflection, that I’ve become quite Chinese in my thinking.

Firstly, I was asked to take part in the Shanghai International Literary Festival next month, a three week smorgasbord of writers, books and avid readers starting tomorrow, March 1, and running until March 17.
I’ll be the session moderator for a literary lunch on Friday, March 15 at M on the Bund featuring author Audra Ang and her new book ‘To The People, Food Is Heaven’, describing Audra’s years in China as an Associated Press journalist obsessed by food. During that time Audra covered some of the most remarkable and memorable stories in China’s recent history, and her book is an incredible account of those times.
Later that same afternoon Audra and I will lead a Shanghai street food tour, introducing a lucky group of food-lovers to some of Sanghai’s best and tastiest street food.

I can’t think of anything better than to get together with food-loving book-lovers, so when I was approached to take part in the festival I said yes, right away! If you’d like to come along and enjoy a great meal and hear Audra speak I’d so love to see you there. Tickets are selling fast, so I’ve included details below on how you can attend. (Stop press: tickets to the food tour have SOLD OUT but lunch tickets are still available)

Then a few days later I discovered I had been named a finalist in this year’s Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year awards, the award ceremony I was lucky enough to attend last year in London. I was completely excited about making it to the finals with almost 8,000 entries this year from talented food photographers the world over, and judges of the likes of food writer Jay Rayner, celebrated chef Tom Aikens, and incredible food photographer David Loftus. Jumping up and down a bit? Perhaps I was…

(Much as I’d love to, I’m not permitted to reveal the photo that made the finals until the awards in London in April.)

Finally, and as if the week wasn’t already shaping up to a cracker, I discovered I was a finalist in the 2013 Bloggies (yes! the Oscars for the blogging world!), in the category of Best Asian Weblog.

Now I don’t which of you wonderful people nominated me, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart – I feel extraordinarily humbled and grateful that you considered my blog as worthy of being amongst the best in that category. Wow.  WOW.

The other blogs in this category are all brilliant and if you have a chance check them out.

The winner is decided on the number of votes received, so if you have a minute please hop onto the 2013 Bloggies website to vote.

All you need do is tick the blogs you like (I have included a voting example above, in case you’re confused 😉 and after writing the robot-proof words in the box at the bottom of the page with your email address, click to submit your nominations. Your email address is needed to prevent you voting 800 times from one email address. Which you can totally do if you want, but they won’t count 799 of those votes. Damn.

Anyway, it’s dead easy and I will love you forever and ever if you vote. I might even send you a dumpling or ten. Pork and chive? Shrimp and white cabbage?

With an abundance of good luck raining down on my head this week I began to wonder when it would all end. I’m not naturally a pessimist you know, but working in the Emergency Room of a great big hospital does tend to make you think that Good Luck can’t last forever, and runs of Bad Luck happen all too often, even to very nice people. When my Bad Luck turns up, I’d like enough warning so I could get to a bunker somewhere quiet, in the hope of avoiding it for as long as possible.

According to Chinese thinking, when a run of good luck occurs, bad luck is likely to be just around the corner waiting for you to mess up. When things go up, the Chinese believe that the natural tendency of the universe is to turn in the opposite direction, and quite soon. It’s their way of being prepared at all times for sudden changes in ones’ fortune, good or bad.

Well, to hell with that. I think I just need to analyze it all less and enjoy it more. Stop thinking. Start opening champagne and preparing those dumplings for all of you!

But just in case, if you see my Bad Luck lurking around a corner somewhere, could you let me know?It’ll give me time to get my bunker filled with snacks.

Shanghai International Literary Festival March 1-17, 2013 
Full event program here

Audra Ang Literary Lunch
M on the Bund, Friday March 15, 12pm – 2pm
RMB 188 including meal

Market Walk and Food Tour   SOLD OUT!
With Audra Ang and yours truly
Friday March 15, 3pm – 4.30pm
RMB 75

You can purchase tickets one of two ways:

Through mypiao  or at M on the Bund, in person only, Saturdays and Sundays 10am-5pm during the festival.

The Manchurian Dumpling Shop

Every dumpling lover, and there are many of us out there, should know a great local dumpling shop. A place devoted to the art of crafting plump little dumplings from dawn to dusk, where there is always a pot on the boil ready to cook a freshly-made batch at any time. A simple, warm and inviting shop no bigger than a single room, with tiny formica tables and plastic stools, and wisping tendrils of steam coming from the front door, where you can stop in anytime for your favourite kind of dumpling – pork and chinese cabbage breakfast dumplings, fragrant chive flower and shrimp afternoon dumplings, late night beef dumplings.  
The Manchurian Dumpling Shop is my local dumpling joint, sitting at the end of a long narrow lane near my house, a secret pedestrian walkway between Nanchang Lu and Fuxing Lu. It doesn’t look like much, with a single round sign outside bearing just two characters: 饺子,jiaozi or dumplings.
For months when I first moved back to Nanchang Lu I thought The Manchurian was a wholesale dumpling shop, because every time I walked past customers were purchasing entire silver trays, as big as tabletops, full of freshly made dumplings. 
Turns out I was wrong about that – The Manchurian is a regular dumpling shop where anyone can eat in or take away freshly made dumplings to cook at home, but with dumplings so good that for many customers, buying less than one hundred dumplings at a time is just a false economy. A dozen or so to eat now, the rest in the freezer for later.

The Manchurian belongs to a hard-working husband and wife, helped out by the husband’s aunt. Like so many small business owners in Shanghai they work seven days a work, long, long days, and live above the shop.
When you enter the tiny space, you walk right into its dumpling-making heart with both women wrapping dumplings at one end of a long steel bench while the husband rolls round white circles of dumpling wrappers by hand at the other. The women move fast, scooping the shrimp, pork and vegetable filling into the centre of a dough circle, and pressing it expertly closed between both thumbs and forefingers to make a beautiful ruffled edge, a dough frill. Each one joins rows of fat white dumplings in a silver tray. 
Steam billows from the tiny back kitchen where a batch of dumplings is cooking for the couple sitting in the miniature ‘mezzanine’, a low space stolen from above the kitchen, thus lowering the kitchen ceiling by several feet.

The Manchurian’s menu runs to five items, with a space reserved for seasonal specialties. The ‘Fine Handmade Dumplings’ are sold by the liang 两, a traditional Chinese measure of weight equivalent to 50g. The menu states ‘one liang is five dumplings’. Or, if you’re a regular customer, occasionally six.
You can choose from:
Shepherd’s purse (a leafy green vegetable) with meat and shelled fresh shrimp dumplings jicai rou xiaren jiaozi 荠菜肉虾仁饺子 6 yuan/liang (less than a dollar)
Beef dumplings niurou jiaozi 牛肉饺子 6 yuan/liang
Fragrant flowered chives and egg dumplings jiucai jidan jiaozi 韭菜鸡蛋饺子 6 yuan/liang
Chinese cabbage and pork dumplings baicai rou jiaozi 白菜肉饺子 5 yuan/liang
Fragrant flowered chives and pork dumplings jiucai rou jiaozi  韭菜肉饺子 5 yuan/liang
My favourites are the simplest – chinese cabbage and pork dumplings, boiled for a few minutes and eaten straight away dipped in strong Shanxi vinegar mixed with lajiao chili paste. 
Aaahh. Dumplings. I find a liang of dumplings makes most problems disappear. You?

The Manchurian Dumpling Shop
Dongbei Manzu Jiaozi
Lane 1252, Fuxing Zhong Lu, Xuhui District Shanghai
Close to the Fuxing Lu lane entrance
Open seven days +86 21 64669197