It’s an understatement to say that the Chinese love to eat. Food, and sharing it family style across a table, is central to the way people live in Shanghai and all over China. Since I share this trait—I also love to eat—Chinese food (the real deal) has become one of my favorite parts of life in Shanghai.
Like many cities and regions, Shanghai has a few specialties. Xiao long xia (spicy crawfish) is popular along the Yangtze River Delta during the hot, humid summers. But dumplings in Shanghai are an art form. There are too many dumpling varieties to choose from among Shanghai’s street vendors—jiaozi, the moon-shaped pork dumplings riffed on by American Chinese restaurants—can be found on most street corners. But no Shanghai dish has achieved the renown of the xiao long bao (pork soup dumpling). For the best xiao long bao, you will have to enter a food establishment and figure out how to order: yi long xiaolongbao, or san if you’re really hungry.
If you’re a fanatic of soup dumplings, you need to own a copy of A Guide To Soup Dumplings in Shanghai, a pseudo-scientific guide to choosing the best soup dumplings in the city. I found this self-published guide in Madam Mao’s Dowry in the Former French Concession, and now posters of the Soup Dumpling Index are available there too, in English and Mandarin. I find myself reading this little treatise way too often.
Christopher Cavish, a Shanghai expat, wrote the guide, and he describes the creation of his Soup Dumpling Index as a process by which he “applied a quantitative framework to the existing qualitative colloquial descriptors of the ideal Shanghai soup dumpling.” His self-described scientific formula for rating soup dumplings looks at xiao long bao as an “engineering challenge.” He rates the thickness (rather, thinness) of the wrappers, the weight of the filling and the percentage of soup inside, and he balances that against freshness (they can’t have been sitting around).
Cavish visited and ranked the xiao long bao at 52 dumpling establishments in Shanghai and fleshed out (literally) the best 18. Just for good measure, he was also bold enough to warn readers away from a couple more terrifying dumpling restaurants. His rankings have rankled, so to speak, since he rated the chain Din Tai Fung as having the best soup dumpling in Shanghai. If you’re in Seattle or Los Angeles, you’re in luck. They both have Din Tai Fung outlets and serve xiao long bao, although the larger menus differ significantly from the restaurants in Shanghai.
I can’t vouch for Cavish’s scientific methodology, but I’ve eaten more xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung than is good for me, and it’s easy to see that it would be the best. The only other establishment on his list that I’ve tried is Jia Jia, which came in at 8th place. The difference between Din Tai Fung and Jia Jia (7 places) was pretty huge — Jia Jia had great tasting pork and broth, but it’s all about the wrapper. Din Tai Fung appears to have the thinnest wrapper (with the most folds), measuring a mere one millimeter thick. Cavish argues that Din Tai Fung gets pegged as being a tourist or expat place because it’s a chain, but his research suggests that 60% of the customers at the Shanghai Center restaurant, and 90% at Grand Gateway, are Chinese. There have certainly always been many Chinese enjoying themselves when I’ve been there.
You may be asking how the soup gets into the xiao long bao. I did. I had heard something about frozen cubes of broth, but thanks to the Dumpling Guide, I now know it’s just a pork broth with enough gelatin to solidify it. Once it’s in a solid state, the gelatinous broth is mixed directly with the meat. Heat it and . . . Voilà
Last but not least, I have to salute my former ayi, Ms. Chung, whose jiaozi was the best I’ve ever had. She was worth her weight in gold for her cooking (although everything she did for us was amazing). She was the hardest working — and youngest looking — grandmother I have ever known. I’m not sure what lucky SAS family hired her when we moved downtown, but I hope they appreciate her food. Anthony Bourdain would have loved eating dinner with Ms. Chung.
My mother managed to get Ms. Chung’s jiaozi recipe via the Google Translate app. I’ll leave it here for posterity and because food and alcohol are posts that always bring the most traffic (so much for my daily observations). If you’re in the U.S. without a wet market handy (ha), this recipe will require some foraging — the secret ingredient is a common weed called shepherd’s purse. My favorite part of this recipe? “Maybe add a little more oil and salt.”
Ms. Chung’s Mouth Watering Dumplings
Filling: Mix well (in stages): 1 lb. ground pork, ½ C. oil, 1 t. dark soy sauce, 1 T. light soy sauce, 1 ½ piece ginger grated then chopped finely, 1 large bunch green onions chopped.
Add and mix: 1 T. black pepper, 1 C.+ finely chopped oyster mushrooms (squeeze juice out before adding (3 handfuls)), grated and chopped carrot; and a huge amount of finely chopped shepherd’s purse (squeeze out the juice). You can substitute cabbage if you must. Mix all well, maybe add a little more oil and salt.
1 kg. dumpling rounds (packaged). Spread water around the edge, add 1 T. or so of filling, press flat, then seal top middle; start at front edge left, pull out and seal to create small pocket(s) in back, which turn into pleats. Then do right side the same.
To Cook: Place about 1 t. butter in Teflon fry pan; cover bottom of the pan with dumplings, let fry a few seconds (until very lightly brown on bottom), then add water to cover the bottom of the pan, add lid and cook ten minutes. Then fry next bunch.