The Essential Guide to Xiaolongbao in Shanghai
As a four year old in Sichuan, I loved waking up to xiaolongbaos on the breakfast table. These were a special treat picked up down the street from a man with bamboo baskets piled high on his cart, steam hissing from the lids every morning at the crack of dawn. The tiny buns wrapped around lean, seasoned pork meat were not the kind that oozed soup, and I was unaware that a whole other world of xiaolongbaos existed until my high school years at a restaurant on Canal Street in New York. I had spent most of my formative years before that point moving with my parents across most of Europe, each country more hopeless than the last at offering the Chinese foods I missed. My father worked in Manhattan’s financial district, and we liked to go to a Shanghai noodle shop in nearby Chinatown. There I had my first taste of the now ubiquitous soup-filled xiaolongbao. It was not spectacular but enjoyable, and it stayed with me.
In College I was introduced to the fantastic foodcosms of North Toronto’s Chinese immigrant community through an ex-boyfriend whose family never dined at home. This was a departure from my family meals that were almost always from my mother’s collection of Jiangzhe and Sichuan recipes that over the years have evolved into something uniquely her own. I was seduced by flavours of various regional Chinese cuisines, all found within carpark of each other in tacky lit-up suburban strip malls. My favourite was the Markham branch of Taiwanese chain DinTaiFung, located in an unassuming corner of an outlet mall, but guaranteeing a lengthy wait to be seated. Most well known for continuously riding a 1997 Times accolade for Top Ten restaurants in the world, its numerous chains around the world serve a gold standard of soup dumplings, delivering it consistently and unfailingly. Each bite was like uncovering the layers of a fascinating story to me, woven by an army of white hats behind the kitchen glass. I was enchanted.
I spent my last year of college in Beijing studying the nuances of Chinese cuisine and moved to Shanghai for the summer to continue said journey. My previous tryst with DTF was a mere flirtation compared to what came next. I faithfully acquainted myself with basket after basket of xiaolongbaos, in traditional establishments with sub zero atmosphere and mod eateries with gimmicky claims to fame. I found chefs- mostly young teen girls- with fingers more nimble than the masters at DTF, rich pork and crab infused soup bursting with umami, baos steamed to order and delivered to the table with as little pretentiousness as its setting. The love affair carried on to present day, partly to blame for my move to Shanghai earlier this year. I just couldn’t stay away.
It would be a shame if the calories I consumed were solely for my own benefit- and waistline, so I will attempt to give a rundown of the essential xiaolongbao tour throughShanghai. Hopefully the writing and photos will help guide first time visitors through the City of XLB. I always knew I was gorging myself for the greater good.
1. Jia Jia Tang Bao (Huanghe Lu at Fengyang Lu)
There’s not much fault you can find in Jia Jia’s XLB, no matter how you nitpick. Its perennially busy location on Huanghe Lu near People Square means that the whole world agrees, and long lineups snake out the door starting early in the morning. But as ingredients deplete, the menu narrows and doors close for the day, so make this your first stop. Order a basket of twelve pork XLB for 9RMB or crab roe/pork for 22.5RMB, don’t forget the essential sliced ginger for an extra 1RMB, and as Gary Soup reminds me- obligatory bottles of ice cold Suntory. Be prepared to wait about ten minutes, watching as adolescent hands wrap your XLB to order.
Pictured are the pork XLB, although crab roe are also standout. The flavour of meat and soup are rich and the dumpling skin thin and delicate, but I have qualms with the occasional sloppiness of wrapping. There is an art to the process of creating xiaolongbao that I love, and I look for that integrity along with flavour, regardless of price.
2. Xiao Yang Shen Jian (Across the street from Jia Jia Tang Bao)
This is the odd one out in the xiaolongbao post, but since you’re already at JJTB, you should walk across the street and get an order of the famous local snack that is like the bastard brother to the XLB. Rougher around the edges, these dough on these buns are thick and bread-like, fried in a large cast iron pan, marinaded in its own juices, and sprinkled with sesame and scallions before being served piping hot to the line of hungry patrons. Be prepared to wait for about ten minutes outside its open-air kitchen, watching as skinny teenage boys rotate the iron pan on its edges, coating the perfect rows of pork buns evenly with its own juices. It is tempting to devour it piping hot, but be careful as your tongue, shirt and shoes are at the mercy of the scalding broth inside. Like the XLB, shenjianbaos are another perfect food, and I know many who prefer it to the former. Its a personal thing, but I know where my loyalties lie.
3. Fu Chun (650 Yuyuan Lu at Zhenning Lu)
Legendary favorite, Fuchun is large at two floors and constantly packed with people snacking on its large menu of items including noodles and xiaolongbao. Its XLB are the way Shanghainese claim to prefer them, a little thicker skin, less soup and meatier filling. Other forms like at Jiajia, DTF etc are referred to as Nanxiang XLB after the town outside Shanghai of their origin. Recently awarded Shanghai’s best XLB by CNNGo’s roster of food experts including Shanghai food legends Jiang Liyang, Shen Hongfei and restaurant consultant/chef Anthony Zhao, Fuchun proves that doing something well and consistently pays off. Pork XLB 5RMB for six.
4. Shang Wei Guan Nanxiang Xiaolong (Several locations, all sort of a pain to get to)
This chain is the highest rated XLB joint on Dianping for flavour at a whopping 26, and 800+ people can’t be wrong. Locations are out of the way for most Puxi expats and tourists, but are quite peaceful in their residential settings. I cabbed to the Xingshan Lu branch and instantly liked it. First of all it is big, a nice departure from other XLB eateries downtown where prime real estate is costly. Second, the diners filing in and out are neighbourhood residents picking up baskets to go for their dinners, parents bringing their children for a snack after school, and cab drivers stopping for a bite. The atmosphere is tourist free, homey, and comfortable. I could see my grandmother picking these up for breakfast. A basket of pork is 5RMB and shrimp/pork is 9RMB. You wait at the kitchen counter, watching as they steam your basket to order. While I was there, most people ordered shrimp/pork, with the other popular item being mini wonton soup. The shrimp/pork mixture blended well together, soup was less rich and complex, and the wrapper was thicker and more glutinous than others I’ve had. But the merit in these are that they are fuss-free and homey, like its setting.
5. Lin Long Fang (10 Jianguo Lu at Zhaozhou Lu)
I tend to save the best for last, so I present to you now Ling Long Fang, what I maintain is the best, most consistent XLB over the past two years (XLB restaurant calibre and open/close rates can change rapidly in Shanghai). LLF is under the same management as Jiajia Tangbao, one who was particularly perplexed when he spotted me at both restaurants on the same day once. You can detect the similarities in atmosphere and flavour. At LLF prices are lower than its sister by ~3RMB or so, and there is almost never a line. The kitchen is staffed with the same breed of young teenage girls as JJ, although I have seen the occasional boy rolling dough. Order the crab roe pork XLB, don’t forget the sliced ginger, and indulge in a retro glass bottle of Fanta. Wait about ten minutes and watch as the steaming basket is brought to you, the tops of the XLB coloured with the unmistakable daub of rich crab roe underneath. Perhaps its because LLF is the quiet underdog alongside megastar JJ, perhaps chefs aren’t as pressured to rush through long queues of order sheets, but more care is placed on these XLB and you can see it in the delicate wrapping and complex flavours of the soup. The ratio of wrapper: meat: soup is ideal, and to dissect it with any more words would be to take away from its perfection. These are very similar to the sister restaurant’s, but for lack of a more appropriate descriptor, its soup, the life blood of the XLB, is simply sexier. For a better price, a more chilled out experience, and the ensuing foodgasm, I pick LLF any day- and am perhaps a tad too enthusiastic in doing so. My waistline sighs.
1. Jia Jia Tang Bao (Huanghe Lu at Fengyang Lu) 2. Xiao Yang Shen Jian (Across the street from Jia Jia Tang Bao) 3. Fu Chun (650 Yuyuan Lu at Zhenning Lu) 4. Shang Wei Guan Nanxiang Xiaolong (596 Xingshan Lu at Guixiang Lu) 5. Lin Long Fang (10 Jianguo Lu at Zhaozhou Lu)