The first of what will inevitably be many posts praising the Shanghainese food scene…
With a smiling face, dough-caked fingers, and a quick invitation for you to sit down, the waitress at my local steamed dumpling joint is better than yours — not that it’s a competition (and if it were, there wouldn’t even be one).
That said, it’s probably impossible to get a bad meal in the entire city of Shanghai.
Six yuan will get you a portion of dumplings still steaming in their round wood cookers. They are usually filled with minced pork, but sometimes also rice, mushroom, and onion among other ingredients, and wrapped in a wafer-thin dough precisely thick enough to let through steam to cook the meat but keep the resulting soupy broth inside.
To eat: bite a small hole in the side of the thing, suck out the hot pork broth from inside, dip in rice vinegar mixed with a bit of red chili paste, then have at it.
What results is something close to the ultimate culinary experience. You know how with certain mixed dishes like stirfry or spaghetti you try to get the perfect bite — ie. one that contains a bit of everything on the fork? These dumplings are the perfect bite as a rule. They’re steamy, spicy, vinegary, doughy, meaty, liquid and solid all in one.
Also, their bite-sized nature makes them pretty fun to pick up with chopsticks!
Aptly named 小笼包//xiao3long2bao1 (lit. little-basket dumplings) for the small bamboo baskets in which they’re steamed, these little suckers will forever change your definition of ‘lunch.’ For 12 RMB (roughly $2), you’ll get two servings of 6 dumplings freshly prepared in the back of the restaurant by the same waitress that seated you. Once the dumplings have been formed, they’re whisked off to be cooked just outside the front entrance.
Cooking the tasty little things outside serves a twofold purpose: first, it prevents the whole place from turning into an European sauna, and second, the sight and smell acts as built-in marketing. I dare anyone to walk past the place without salivating. No, I don’t actually have a way to measure the saliva in your hypothetical mouth, but trust me, you’ll be craving xiaolongbao instantly.
This Shanghai specialty is best when eaten in the city of its origin and in small, book-ended restaurants like mine on Wudong Road. Which means you’ll need to buy a plane ticket here STAT.