May 4, 2005
The Spring 2005 Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Survey
Xiao long baos (小籠包), or commonly referred to as "soup dumplings" in English, originated in Shanghai. At least in New York, I have never tasted a single one that I can even remotely consider to be a passable rendition of this fine Chinese delicacy. All xiao long baos in New York have one thing in common: the skins are ridiculously thick. And they tend to be too large. If you're lucky the filling might be about right, with a good amount of soup; but the skin.... oh the humanity! Sometimes they are so thick I could swear I was eating a cha shao bao (roast pork bun). New Yorkers love Chinese food and, if you've ever seen the lines at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown and Flushing (horrible xiao long baos, btw), many love xiao long baos. Sadly what they are waiting in line for are not even a pale imitation of the real thing.
Some background before we start, since many people have never tasted a true xiao long bao: A proper xiao long bao should have very thin skin, about spoon sized and soupy on the inside. The skin is such an integral part of the dish that I'm shocked that not a single restaurant in New York can get it right (c'mon people!). The best xiao long baos have skins so thin that they are practically translucent. As you carefully pick one up with your chopsticks, you could literally see the weight of the soup stretching the skin down, threatening to rip the thin wrapping apart, yet it should have enough elasticity to hold it all in. The delicate balance of dough, soup and meat then explodes in a wash of flavors in your mouth.
My favorite xiao long baos are from the famous Taiwanese restaurant Ding Tai Feng (鼎泰豐). They have branches all over (Shanghai, Tokyo, HK, LA), but for some reason not in New York. I've tried the Shanghai, HK and Tokyo branches and they are all about the same with each other, but all are slightly worse than the original in Taipei. Still good enough to be better than most xiao long baos out there, though. [Update: I finally tried LA's Ding Tai Feng and it was BAD!!!]
Here is my quest for the ultimate xiao long baos in their birthplace, Shanghai. Whose xiao long bao will reign supreme! Allez cuisine!
Any survey of xiao long baos in Shanghai must start with Nanxiang Mantou Dian (南翔饅頭店) in Old Town God's Temple (城隍廟), a horribly tacky tourist area. After all, this is the shop that invented xiao long baos. You'll always find a mad line of people waiting to buy 16 xiao long baos for 8RMB/US97¢ at the take-out window (That's 16! For less than a buck US!).
Upstairs, there are two areas where you can sit down and dine. One is more expensive and thus less wait. And supposedly they have better quality than the crazy cheap stuff downstairs, so you are not just paying for the ambiance. That's what they claim anyway.
Anyway, we tried the deluxe upstairs version.
We tried both the regular version (30RMB/US$3.62 for 6) and the crab meat version (50RMB/US$6.04 for 6). Compare those prices with the 16 for 8RMB at the take-out window and you see why there's a huge line for those downstairs.
So how's the xiao long baos from the people who invented xiao long baos? Eh. Disappointing. The skin here, though not nearly as thick as the abominations they call "soup dumplings" in NYC, is not as thin as Ding Tai Feng's. The thick skin ruined the dish already so I couldn't even really try to figure out if the filling is good or not since it's irrelevant at that point. (I don't think it was anything special, btw. It was soupy, that's about the best I can say about it.)
And just so you know I'm not talking out of my ass about the need for thinness. The brochure at Nanxiang stresses that the skin should be thin. Too bad they don't listen to their own literature.
Anyway, if this were in New York it would be by far the best xiao long bao in the city. Not saying much, since it's not that hard to be the best when the rest are such zeros. But compared with Taipei's Ding Tai Feng? Not even kind of close.
I also tried an "old" Shanghai restaurant, Wang Jia Sha (王家沙). It's one of those places that's been around forever for one reason or another.
I sampled their crab meat xiao long bao (15RMB/US$1.81 for 4), as they are known for their crab meat fillings in many dishes, from xiao long baos to spring rolls. These were pretty large-ish and the skins were hella thick. For a second I thought I was back in New York's Chinatown. If you haven't gotten the hint by now, I hate NY's Chinese food. Flushing in Queens is better, though. But that's so far it might as well not be in NY. Am I bitter that Chinese food sucks on my beloved Manhattan island? Hell yes.
Oh, by the way, the rest of the food at this restaurant sucked, too. Extremely greasy and tasteless. Reminded me of the times I've spent in the middle of China where everything tasted like they were drenched in stale oil. But anyway, this is about xiao long baos, so we soldier on...
Next, I sampled xiao long baos from a couple of "regular" restaurants that have reputations as being good places. The one pictured above is from Weng Restaurant (翁家魚翅) during dim sum (the dim sum was quite good, easily one of the better dim sum places in Shanghai). The xiao long baos are not as large as they appear in the photo above. The basket is one of those small dim sum steamers. Again, the skin was too thick (though, again, thinner than New York). Not pictured is another basket of xiao long baos we had at another well regarded restaurant. Also about the same: Nothing objectionable, but nothing too good either. Let's just say you won't be pissed off after eating them (I'm frequently pissed off after eating because I can't believe people have the audacity to serve such crappy food and charge for it).
So far, the survey has been a bust. Everything had been mediocre (and even horrible—damn you Wang Jia Sha!). I was beginning to think only the Taiwanese can make good xiao long baos. Until...
This is it... I've finally found xiao long baos that can give the ones from Taipei's Ding Tai Feng a run for their money.
These were from 佳家湯包/Jia Jia Tang Bao, this dirty little hole-in-the-wall on a small street in 黃浦區/Huangpu that sells basically only xiao long baos. A basket of 15 costs 6RMB. That's US72¢!!
The place is about the size of a large walk-in closet, with four girls standing in one corner, wrapping the xiao long baos and three tiny tables and a bunch of stools for the customers.
They make the xiao long baos to order on the spot. They wrap them only after you've ordered. Incidentally, everyone who worked in this little hole in the wall was a teenage girl... I like the way the owner thinks... Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. The xiao long baos are a little smaller than usual, I like the size quite a bit. The skins are delicate and thin, but are somehow not quite the same consistency and feel as the ones from Ding Tai Feng (might be a weeee bit thicker). I'm not saying it's better or worse, just a little different. And they had an incredible amount of soup inside. I've never had soupier soup dumplings. They are easily twice as soupy as any other soup dumplings I've had. The taste is a touch on the sweet side, but it didn't bother me.
And really, let me remind you, they were 72 cents!!!
On a price/performance ratio, I don't think any xiao long baos can beat them.
We also tried the crab version (16.5RMB/US$1.99 for 15) which I didn't like. Less soupy and very... crabby. Perhaps if you love crabs you might like them. I felt like I was literally eating a crab with some dumpling skin wrapped around it. They have many other varieties of xiao long bao fillings that I didn't try: chicken-pork, chicken only, shrimp-pork and shrimp only.
But the regular soup dumplings... nice!
And finally, to complete the survey, I went to the Shanghai branch of Taipei's Ding Tai Feng.
Pictured above is a special type of xiao long bao. Ding Tai Feng calls the regular ones xiao long bao (小籠包) and they call these xiao long tang bao (小籠湯包). They are much smaller. A basket comes with 20 of them (58RMB/US$7). As you can see, they look a little different from the regular ones as well. They are kind of "upside down", the creases being on the bottom.
Not only are these smaller, they come with a bowl of soup on the side that you can either drink separately or eat with the xiao long baos. The little "dumplings" have soup inside as well, so I'm not entirely sure why they want you do eat them with extra soup on the side. I end up eating them on a spoonful of soup and they are good!
I don't know how it is at the other branches, but at least in Taipei, Ding Tai Feng doesn't serve this dish everyday. In Taipei, this is only available on weekend mornings before 11am. The Tokyo branch doesn't serve it at all, and I'm not sure if the HK one serves it either (I've only been there once and I didn't pay attention to whether they had it).
Anyway, here in the Shanghai branch, they serve them all day long, everyday. The first time I came here a couple of years ago, I was so excited since I had always wanted to try them, but I never went to Ding Tai Feng on a weekend morning.
The only problem with these baby xiao long baos is that they cool down much faster. If you don't eat them quickly, they lose that piping hotness essential to the enjoyment of a xiao long bao very fast.
Eating Ding Tai Feng and Jia Jia Tang Bao on consecutive nights, I can say that Ding Tai Feng is still better. Not by a whole lot, but better. Just keep in mind that Ding Tai Feng in Taipei is yet another notch better. But you know, it was 6RMB last night, so maybe Jia Jia Tang Bao was better after all, if you take price into consideration. A little better in a much nicer surrounding versus much cheaper in a much crappier surrounding (I hear it gets crazy hot in that little closet of a restaurant in the summer time). Your call.
And with this, I have concluded my Spring 2005 Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Survey. I tried six (I consider) representative places, from the inventor of xiao long baos, to famous hole-in-the-wall, to well-regarded restaurants run by both Shanghainese proprietors and Taiwanese proprietors, etc, etc. Verdict: Ding Tai Feng reigns supreme (even in its inferior Dalu branch). Jia Jia Tang Bao is a close second, especially considering the insane price. Everywhere else: don't bother. And to my New York friends: except for Wang Jia Sha, even the worst xiao long bao I had was way better than what you can find in New York. Wang Jia Sha, however, gains my eternal loathing for reminding me of not only the heinous greasy food I was forced to eat in the middle of China but also the detestable xiao long baos I have to eat in NY.
PS: Before I end this post, I have one last rant: Stop calling every single god damn Chinese dish you can't translate a "dumpling". A dumpling is a "dumpling". A xiao long bao is not a soup "dumpling". And a zongzi is not a rice "dumpling". We don't call every Western dish a "burger"... Maybe steaks are "naked burgers". French fries are "shredded meatless potato burgers". Philly cheesesteaks are "Philly burgers". Hotdogs are "elongated burgers". Etc, etc.
PPS: I ate many other types of food during my two-week stay in Shanghai, to see a photo diary of what I ate, see my photoset, A Taste of Shanghai, on Flickr.
Nanxiang Mantou Dian, inside Old Town God's Temple (Cheng Huang Miao or Yuyuan in Chinese), can't miss it, (021) 6355-4206
王家沙, 南京西路805號 (考石門一路)
Wang Jia Sha, 805 West Nanjing Road (near Shimen First Road), (021) 6217-0625
翁家魚翅, 淮海中路138號, 上海廣場三樓
Weng Restaurant, 138 Central Huaihai Road, (021) 6375-6377
Jia Jia Tang Bao, 638 South Henan Road (by Wenmiao Road), (021) 6366-3570
Ding Tai Fung (that's how they spell it with the incorrect pinyin), 18 Shui Cheng Road (inside Peace Square), (021) 6208-4188