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!