A trip to Shanghai would be all for naught if you do not have authentic, street inspired xiao long bao. They aren’t your local Chinese restaurant’s takeout dumplings and they aren’t made better anywhere in the entire planet. Trust me, I’ve gone to ChinaTowns all across the world and none of them compare. A close second may be Taipei but those still fall short.
First, let’s define what xiao long bao is by saying that aren’t a prototypical dumpling. These little bundles of joy have something that dumplings do not, steamy hot delicious soup trapped inside.
It is, no doubt, one of the great wonders of the world how they inject the soup into the dumpling and how, even with this amazing soup trapped inside, the dumpling can preserve its structural integrity. I’ve watched them construct xiao long bao at many a restaurant and I’m still baffled by the process.
From the soup you have the meat, usually pork that’s oh so tender. From there you have the outside of the dumpling. Xiao long bao is steamed and sheng jian bao is pan fried. Both are delicious.
Now for the ordering:
If you’re meandering through Shanghai and find a street where they make xiao long bao (this is becoming increasingly elusive because of the commercialization of the city center) how do you know which vendor to select? Go with the obvious choice, the one with the longest line. The battle of xiao long bao creators has been going on since the beginning of time and the level of pride from producing perfection is passed on from one generation to the next.
Step up and point to the dumplings, signal the number 1 with your hand, and prepare your coins. The cost is a laughable 45 to 90 cents for half a dozen dumplings.
From there, find a seat on the street or an impromptu table while grabbing a bottle of vinegar and adding in chili paste for dipping.
Your required utensils are a sturdy pair of kuazi (chopsticks) and a spoon. Lift the dumpling with the chopsticks while holding the spoon below. Dip the dumpling into the vinegar and prepare to be wowed.
But xiaoxin (be careful), before you sink your teeth into this savory morsel whose translation means “little basket dumpling” remember the soup is scalding hot!
Poke a small hole into the dumpling, suck out the soup, then devour the rest.
It’s pointless to look for napkins so keep eating and don’t be bashful about the mess that you have created.