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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 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!

The Shanghai Xiaolongbao iPhone App Launches!

There’s one food every single one of our visitors to Shanghai goes home dreaming about – xiaolongbao – those addictive little soup-filled Shanghai dumplings. I could eat them all day, slurping one after another of the delicious morsels straight from a hot steamer basket.

Late last year I was approached with an intriguing offer from the people at Rama Tours – famous for their unique and innovative iPhone history tour apps – to write an iPhone app for foodies visiting Shanghai, giving them an insider’s knowledge about specific local foods. I immediately knew that it should be a xiaolongbao app, my own homage to Shanghai’s most famous snack food.

The Rama people agreed, having apparently heard that after eating my body weight in xiaolongbao I could now be considered something of an expert on them, and just the right person to spread the word about the finest places in the city to get your fill of xiaolongbao!

For the tour I really wanted to give foodie visitors to Shanghai the inside scoop on where to go for not only the best xiaolongbao, but also the most innovative, the most historically authentic, and the most fun xiaolongbao, along with insider tips, maps, and Chinese text to make ordering a breeze for non-Chinese speakers.

The Shanghai Xiaolongbao iPhone app launched a few days ago along with the worldwide launch of Rama Food – iPhone apps from 22 cities around the world, written by local experts, and designed for traveling foodies like me and you who want to know the best local places to find great food when we travel. I can’t wait to get to Chengdu later this year and try food blogger Jenny Gao of Jing Theory’s Chengdu Street Snacks, or New Yorker James Boo‘s take on NYC barbecue, and Nausheen Noor‘s Snack Food Tour of Dubai.

To see the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour, and all the other worldwide foodie tours on offer, you can visit the Rama iTunes page, download the free Rama App, then browse in-app for individual food tours. The Rama app is free, but individual tours are priced separately from $0.99. For a limited time in celebration of the Rama Food launch, you can try the food tours “Istanbul in Berlin” and “Dubai: Ethnic Eats” for free, should you be traveling to either of those spots!

As you can imagine, researching this app was a lot of fun! Take my visit to modern xiaolongbao eatery Simon’s Kitchen for example, where ex-Din Tai Fung chefs have set up their own xiaolongbao restaurant and added very individual features like create-your-own xiaolongbao, choosing from different flavoured and coloured dumpling wrappers and a choice of innovative fillings. I was of course, forced to eat one of every possible combination, you know, for research purposes.

A great feature of Rama’s tours is that you have the ability to view the tour information and all the maps even when offline, so you won’t incur costly roaming charges when travelling.

I had a load of fun writing the Shanghai Xiaolongbao app, and I hope you’ll share it with any traveling foodies you know who might be swinging by Shanghai anytime soon!

Some frequently asked questions about the tours:

Is Rama available for platforms other than iPhone, like Android?
The Android version is slated for early 2012. Get updated as soon as it’s out by following @Rama_Food or
Does Rama work for iPad?
Yes! The app is not “native” to iPad, yet, but will be soon.
Does Rama work on an iPod Touch?
You bet! Because Rama accommodates offline maps, it’s one of the few apps you can use when you travel, without a 3G or wifi connection.
How do I find your tour on the app?
When you’ve downloaded the (free) Rama app to your phone, just search by my name, the title, or the city and— voila!
Can I use your tour when I travel? I won’t have access to a wifi or 3G connection on my phone, since I live overseas and don’t want to pay expensive data roaming fees.
Yes! Rama offers tour saving. Once you download a tour you will be able to use it without an Internet connection. 

Jia Jia Tang Bao – A Shanghai Xiaolongbao Classic

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
黄河路90, 近凤阳路
Ph +86 21 6327 6878
Open 7 days, 6.30am – 10pm or until sold out

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 15 Xiaolongbao the Movie!

The excitement! The first ever Life On Nanchang Lu video!!   Before you get too excited, I should warn you that I opened iMovie for the first time about 24 minutes ago. Seems pretty user friendly, but if there is a way to have a technological meltdown, I’ll sure find it.  Somehow, for example, I managed to record three separate audio tracks one on top of the other, resulting in a pretty confusing noise sort of like voices in your head. I wasn’t intending to record an audio voiceover, until I realised I had committed the first crime of video recording, which is, don’t carry on a brainless conversation with your friends while recording said video.  It doesn’t add to the ambience.   Enjoy the xiaolongbao!    

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 14 The Spiritual Home of Xiaolongbao

You all love xiaolongbao right? But those small and miraculous soup-filled dumplings Shanghai is famous for probably didn’t ever 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 the super-uber-mega-lopolis that is modern-day Shanghai, and is now relegated to the status of outer suburb. It even has its own stop on the Shanghai subway system.

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. 

If you’re reading this and wondering what on earth I’m talking about, xiaolongbao are a type of Chinese dumpling filled with a savoury mixture of pork and gelatinised stock, which melts on cooking to form the famous soup inside. Whole websites and forums are given over to arguing the finer points of particular xiaolongbao from different restaurants all over the world who all claim to have the best xiaolongbao. But you can’t fully understand a food, I think, until you’ve eaten it in its original form at its source. It certainly adds to the appreciation, doesn’t it, of eating more ‘evolved’ versions and makes for an interesting comparison. 

So today I took a trip to Nanxiang to experience the home of xiaolongbao for myself. With dozens of xiaolongbao restaurants to choose from it was never going to be an easy choice, so I suggested an old-fashioned pub crawl, only involving dumpling houses, to last all afternoon until we were filled to busting. My friends, sadly, thought we might save The Great Dumpling Crawl for another day because they also wanted to see temples and gardens and the old town. Oh well. 

The original plan had been to try the Gulong Restaurant inside Nanxiang’s Guyi Gardens, but incredibly, Nanxiang’s most famous xialongbao shop was closed, shut up and gone. Possible relocated, but who knows. I had already tried the hideous thick-skinned, doughy, greasy atrocities of the Nanxiang Mantou Dian (Nanxiang Steamed Bun Shop, originally from Nanxiang but now inside the Yu Gardens in Shanghai, where a long queue of tourists, both Chinese and foreign, wait to be fed absolute rubbish) and I wasn’t going to repeat the experience. So the two most famous xiaolongbao restaurants were crossed off the list. Luckily, we had some local know-how in the form of Kevin (not his real name, but he chose it) who had driven us to Nanxiang. In his view, there was only one place to try and it was Song Ji at 210 Guyiyuan Lu.

Outside, stacks of steamer baskets full of plump xialongbao were waiting to be cooked in the giant outdoor steamer. Inside, round wooden tables were filled with people dipping their xiaolongbao in dark vinegar then slurping up the filling. The menu ran to two choices of xiaolongbao – pork, or pork and crab, and five extras, all soups. The pork xiaolongbao cost 20 yuan for a steamer basket of twenty, and the pork and crab 30 yuan for twenty. That’s about 16 cents each. 

And the taste? 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, was delicious and dangerously hot. We tried two of the five soups on offer, a tofu and vermicelli soup, and a beef stock soup. The first wasn’t really memorable, and the second we will never forget because in the bottom of the bowl were cubes of cooked congealed blood. I think we’ll stick with the xiaolongbao!

After eating 60 xiaolongbao between five of us, I realised the Dumpling Crawl was nothing but a pipe dream. There is no way I could eat my way through Nanxiang in a day! Good excuse to come back now that I know I can get there by subway…

Take-away packs were available too, cooked then packed inside two bamboo shells to protect them, like a giant clam. They re-heated pretty well in the steamer at home, but had less soup inside than the restaurant xiaolongbao.

If all this has left you desperate to try your own xiaolongbao at home, you can read up on my recipe for the soup jelly, and the xiaolongbao recipe.

Tomorrow: more on Nanxiang – and a xiaolongbao video!

Song Ji Nanxiang Xiaolongbao
210 Guyiyuan Lu
Jiading District,

Nearest Metro stop Nanxiang, Line 11 (Line 11 commences at Jiangsu Lu, on Line 2, and Nanxiang is 10 stops from there)

Project Food Blog Challenge 2: The Great Xiaolongbao Experiment

A giant thank-you to everyone who voted me into Round 2 of Project Food Blog!
For this second challenge I have been asked to prepare a dish from another cuisine.

‘Pick an ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone or you are not as familiar with. Try to keep the dish as authentic as the real deal.’

So because I’m living in Shanghai, for this challenge I have created one of the most classic and beloved Shanghainese dishes known, as well of one of the most difficult – for anyone who is not a dumpling chef. Which I’m not. The dish is xiǎolóngbāo. The name xiǎolóngbāo means small steamer bun. Say show(as in ‘ow!’)-long-bow.

Xiǎolóngbāo are small, delicate, thin-skinned steamed dumplings filled with pork and an aromatic and savoury soup. There is some contention about their exact geographic origin, but now they are associated inextricably with Shanghai. Someone went so far as to say they were ‘the only contribution Shanghai had made to global cuisine’. Well!

The first time you try xiǎolóngbāo the soup bursts surprisingly onto your tongue with your  first bite, sending hot liquid all over your dress. Despite this, you are filled with wonderment that scalding soup can be contained inside a soft dumpling skin. How do they do it? How do they get the soup inside?? The secret to this culinary marvel is that the soup is made from pork jelly, mixed with the meat filling, solid at room temperature but melting into a delicious liquid when cooked. 

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m cheating

You will all gasp: She lives in CHINA and she’s making a CHINESE dish??!  How hard can that be??

But I’m an Australian. My national food is a fusion of Mediterranean, British, and South-East Asian cuisine. When it comes to Chinese food, it’s about as far away fromy own ethnic cuisine as it possible to be. In fact, I had never cooked it before, unless you count working your way through The Australian Women’s Weekly Easy Chinese Cookbook, age 14. I’m sure if you served those dishes to a Chinese person they wouldn’t recognise them. I thought we were pretty cosmopolitan.  

And although everyone in Shanghai loves xiǎolóngbāo, I have never met a single person who makes them at home, because they are far too time-consuming, and they need to be cooked and eaten within five minutes of being made. I thought, therefore, that they sounded like the perfect dish for this challenge.

So just how did my xiǎolóngbāo experiment pan out? Better than the Australian Women’s Weekly Lemon Chicken, circa 1983, let me tell you. But still in need of a lot of practice. At least the ugly ones still taste good.

The real fun of xiǎolóngbāo is, of course, in the eating. Here’s the technique:

Lift one carefully out of the steamer by its topknot.

Drizzle over some dark, complex-flavoured brown rice vinegar, or dunk the whole thing in a dish of vinegar. Or, if you prefer, eat it plain.

Nibble a small hole in the top, and allow the steam to escape.
Carefully, ever so carefully, suck out the boiling hot soup. Slurp noisily, and with enjoyment. Now pop the whole hot steaming bundle into your mouth.

Have another, and another. You’ve got a whole basket to get through!

Should you have a day or two up your sleeve, here’s the recipe. The pork jelly needs to be made the day before.

Shanghai Xiǎolóngbāo
Makes 24 


For the filling:

200g pork mince
3tsp water
3tsp shaoxing rice wine
2tsp ginger, finely diced
1tsp scallion, finely diced
1 tsp salt
2tsp sugar
2tsp light soy sauce
shake of white pepper
2tsp sesame oil
200g pork skin jelly, finely diced (my recipe separately here)

Combine all the ingredients except the jelly. Stir the mixture 50 times in one direction. Not a joke! If you don’t the meat will be lumpy. Now add the jelly, and mix. Refrigerate until ready.

For the dumpling skins:

160g wheat flour
90ml cold water

1. Combine the flour and water into a dough. Knead for 10 minutes until elastic.

2. Divide dough into two equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 12 inch long cylinder. Separate each cylinder into 12 equal pieces.

3. Roll each individual piece into a ball, then flatten into a disc. Roll out to 6cm size.

To construct:

1. Hold a wrapper flat on the palm of your left hand.

2. Place a heaped teaspoon of the dumpling mixture into the centre of the wrapper.

3. Cup your hand slightly, bringing the edges of the wrapper up around the filling.

4. Using both thumbs, and both index fingers, stretch and pleat the edges of the xiǎolóngbāo wrapper working anticlockwise as shown. Both thumbs remain inside the dumpling at all times, with both index fingers on the outside.

5. Continue working all the way round the edge of the wrapper, gently turning the bun in the palm of your left hand as you go.

6. It should resemble a rosette like this.

7. Press the pleated edges lightly together to seal.

8. So that it looks like this.

To cook:

1. Line a steamer basket with a store-bought liner, or a piece of tea-towel cut to shape. This will stop the xiǎolóngbāo frosticking to the steamer bottoand tearing when you lift them out. Place the xiǎolóngbāo into the steamer without touching one another.

2. Bring a pot of water to the boil, reduce to a simmer. Place the lidded steamer basket on top. Steam for 10 minutes.

3. Serve xiǎolóngbāo in the steamer basket, with brown rice vinegar on the side for dipping. Enjoy!

(Adapted with thanks from a recipe by The Chinese Cooking Workshop, Weihai Lu, Shanghai)

Shanghai’s Best Xiǎolóngbāo

Xiǎolóngbāo are synonymous with Shanghai in the minds of most foodies. These little steamed meat and soup-filled dumplings are often the first thing that Shanghainese living overseas want to eat when they make a pilgrimage home. Certainly they will always be the first thing I’d be wanting to eat on my return. 

Why? They are certainly tasty, with a filling made from pork (usually) with or without the addition of crab meat or crab roe, and seasoned with a little ginger and shaoxing wine. But the minor miracle lies in their creation and construction – these seemingly delicate, semi-transparent skins hold not only the delicious meat but a big mouthful of fragrant soup too.I have written previously about making Xiǎolóngbāo  if you want to know more.

And how do you eat them? Firstly place a few slivers of ginger on your spoon, and pour some excellent dark vinegar into a small dish. Now ever so carefully lift one out of the steamer basket by its top knot, as this is the strongest part. Poorly made xiǎolóngbāo will come apart at this point, and there will be soup everywhere, including on your new dress. Dip it into the vinegar then rest it on your spoon. What you do next depends on the temperature of the xiǎolóngbāo. If still very hot, nibble a small hole in the top to release the steam, then suck out the soup and eat the rest. Personally, I like to wait until they are just slightly less hot and slurp the whole thing off my spoon intact. Then, when I bite, hot soup pours into my mouth and down my throat, almost, but not quite, scalding it. OK, scalding it many times, but you have to suffer a little to achieve food nirvana.

I think the best xiǎolóngbāo in Shanghai are to be found at Din Tai Fung (several locations, including Xintiandi and Yu Gardens). Foodies will be rolling in their graves because Din Tai Fung is actually from Taiwan, not Shanghai. But you know what? I’ve eaten around 300 of their xiǎolóngbāo. Every single one tasted great. Their restaurants are impeccably clean, and their service is excellent. Other places may beat them on price but cannot match them for consistency. Let me know your favourite Shanghai xiǎolóngbāo restaurant!

Fiona can make XiaoLongBao!

Unbelievable, isn’t it! Xiao long bao (small steamer basket buns) are a delicious Shanghainese specialty beloved by everyone. Their thin but strong wrapping holds the most aromatic
mouthful of hot broth and pork, and I had wondered long and hard about how such a volume of liquid might manage to be encased in a soft dumpling wrapper. Since I first visited Shanghai I’ve been dreaming of making xiao long bao , but I considered them well beyond the reach of the average amateur cook (myself). But then I discovered a cooking school right here in the French Concession specialising in teaching foreigners the art of making dumplings.

Firstly, make a wheat flour and water dough. Knead the hell out of it to make it strong but stretchy. Divide into walnut sized pieces.

Roll out the dumpling wrappers until 6cm across.

Now for the really disgusting part. Fill your wrapper quite full with the secret mixture. This secret mixture (don’t keep reading if you have a weak stomach. Or you are vegetarian) is pork mince mixed with a thick jelly made from boiling pork skin for hours, until it sets. At room temperature it’s the colour and consistency of lard, yet is totally fat free! There has to be an advantage to outweigh the thought of eating dissolved pig skin. At high heat the jelly dissolves inside the dumpling, mingles with all the other ingredients and makes an amazingly delicious soup. And yes, I still keep eating them even though now I know…… you ever think about those horses hoofs when you eat raspberry jelly? No!
So now, easy peasy, just pleat those little dumpling wrapper edges, oh, about eighteen times until it forms a tight spiral. Pinch to close. Steam for 10 minutes. Can you believe I made these little beauties?