Shanghai, Day 1
They say, when in Rome do as the Roman does and you’ll be rewarded with a priceless local experience. So, when the local culture is to stand in a long line for what is touted as THE best xiao long bao, then wait in line I shall.
The xiao long bao, litereally means the “little basket bun”, is born and developed here in the streets of Shanghai. A true and true icon of the city’s culinary offers. This tiny steamed bun has a delicate and translucent skin that holds a juicy filling of pork and a fragrant, rich broth (from melted gelatin during the steaming process), can be found virtually everywhere from delicious yet dodgy roadside stalls to the most fancy dim sum joints.
This has also made searching for the perfect xiao long bao a little harder within the city. It’s a game of finding the needle in the haystack. Most guides would point you towards safer options (read: international chain restaurants) like Din Tai Fung and Crystal Jade. Its true that the consistency and quality of their food cannot be doubted, but to not eat it off the streets is like going to Paris and eating macarons at McDonald’s. So, I did some research online and many local and expat bloggers seem to point me in the direction of Jia Jia Tang Bao.
And that’s how I found myself in line at one of Shanghai’s most popular dumpling store. The atmosphere around this old part of town, somewhere next to People’s Square ????, was festive to say the least. The old Chinese saying, ‘People mountain, people sea‘ was clearly examplified. Workers of the neighbouring restaurants were hosing down their chairs like how we would wash our cars. Some people in line were smart enough to get some shengjianbao (the pan fried cousin of xiao long bao) from across the street. I stood there hungry as I watched them chew into the juicy dumplings filled with heaps of minced meat. Damn, it’s making my mouth salivate! I should have done the same too. But it’s too late now. I’ve been queuing up for more than 15mins and I’m almost at the front of its doors.
I overheard a regular in line telling his friends that the line today is actually shorter in comparison to most weekends. Boy, this must be my lucky day. While they do make the classic steamed pork soup dumpling, I’ve decided on what I really wanted for my first meal here in the city. I’ve heard so much about them Pure Crab Roe Dumpling. So, that’s all I’m here for. To be honest, I’m afraid it might be a let down. Fingers crossed. Dammit, hurry up! I’m hungry!
Once inside, I was quickly seated right next to where the action is. Half a dozen of young girls working hard behind the glass panel, churning and folding up dumpling after dumplings. They seemed to be very used to the cameras by now. You can call them celebrities in their own rights. They’re the dumpling masters after all. They just went on doing their own things as I snapped away. Up until a couple of Hong Kong TVB stars, whose names I cannot recall, showed up with an entourage. And that was when the girls actually dropped everything they were doing and turned around for a glimpse. All but just for one second. They turned around again and got back to their assembly line jobs.
My dumplings finally arrived in two baskets of six each. The verdict? Sweet, rich, tasty, juicy, indulgent and artery clogging! It went so well with the pickled ginger slivers in chinkiang vinegar (rice vinegar). For some reason, I think this is also the best ginger ever. The dumplings were the most expensive item on the menu, costing RMB81 per dozen (appx. RM40/USD11.80). However, you can still get the regular version for a fraction of that price.
The 12 dumplings filled me up good. However, as I squeezed my way out of its cramped entrance where a huge line was still waiting for their dumplings, I suddenly had the urge to run across to Yang’s Fry Dumpling for some of its famous shengjianbao too. So, I did.
Shengjianbao is a much more sturdy and filling cousin of the steamed dumpling, and is equally revered in the city. The difference with shengjianbao is that the dumplings are first fried in a large black pan. A lid is then put ontop of it to let it steam. This fry-steam technique creates enough pressure to cook the thick slab of minced pork and fats inside its skin and while retaining all the juice inside. The result is a golden brown and crisp on the bottom and a top that’s fluffy (like char siu bao), a sprinkled with sesame seed and chives before serving. Be careful not to scald yourself when you bite into it. All the juice within are just waiting to explode out. For RMB5 for a serving of 4 dumplings, this is a steal!
And that was my lunch an dinner all in one go. Shanghai’s truly a dumpling paradise.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
Huang He Lu 90, by Fengyang Lu, Shanghai
Yang’s Fry Dumpling
Huang He Lu 97, Shanghai