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Sizzling Xiao Long Bao: Juicy Steamed Soup Dumplings

Sizzling Xiao Long Bao: Juicy Steamed Soup Dumplings

The Juiciest Soup Dumplings in Shanghai

I’ll never forget the first time I sank my teeth into a steaming hot, perfectly pleated xiao long bao (XLB) in Shanghai. The delicate wrapper gave way to a burst of savory, gelatin-rich broth that flooded my mouth, followed by a tender meatball that practically melted on my tongue. It was a culinary revelation that had me hooked from the first bite.

When my wife insisted we revisit Shanghai, I knew exactly where I wanted to go – straight to the source of these magnificent soup dumplings. After all, this was the main reason I had concocted the trip in the first place. I yearned to taste the authentic version of this iconic Chinese delicacy, the one that had eluded me in all the subpar imitations I’d encountered stateside.

Xiao Long Bao: The Quintessential Shanghai Treat

For the uninitiated, xiao long bao are delicate, steamed buns filled with a juicy, savory broth and a tender pork meatball. The magic lies in the ingenious way they’re constructed – a thin, stretchy wrapper is gathered up around a gelatin-rich filling, which melts into a soup-like consistency when steamed.

To enjoy one properly, you’ve got to pick it up gingerly with chopsticks, dip it into a tiny pool of black vinegar and ginger, then nibble off a corner to slurp out the broth before popping the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a delicate, multi-step ritual that’s as much about the experience as it is about the flavor.

As Kenji Lopez-Alt described so vividly, the sensation of biting into a perfectly executed XLB is akin to “a savory Chinese Gusher” – an explosion of umami-rich broth that dribbles down your chin, leaving you with a giddy, childlike sense of delight.

The Hunt for Shanghai’s Best Soup Dumplings

Armed with Kenji’s recommendation, my wife and I set out to find the holy grail of XLB at Jia Jia Xiao Long Bao, a Shanghai institution widely regarded as serving the city’s finest. Located just a stone’s throw from People’s Park, this unassuming eatery is all business, with a short menu, a bustling line out the door, and an assembly-line of dumpling-making pros behind the counter.

As we walked past the register, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the dumpling-making process unfolding before our eyes. Dough was being torn into balls, rolled into thin wrappers, and then deftly crimped around a dollop of filling – all in the blink of an eye. These folks were absolute pros, churning out perfect little purses faster than I could even process.

My mouth started watering in anticipation as we were finally seated and our order of a dozen pork dumplings and a dozen pork-and-crab arrived. The moment of truth had arrived.

As Kenji had rightly predicted, these were undoubtedly the best soup dumplings I had ever tasted. The thin, stretchy wrapper gave way to a burst of rich, gelatinous broth and a tender, barely seasoned pork filling. The ginger-vinegar sauce provided the perfect accompaniment, cutting through the unctuous flavors with its bright, tangy punch.

I might as well have been back in that bustling Shanghai street, juice dribbling down my chin, reveling in the pure joy of this quintessential local delicacy. These XLBs were leagues beyond anything I’d ever had, even at the renowned Din Tai Fung chain. And at a fraction of the price, too.

The Other Soup Dumpling: Sheng Jian Bao

But the soup dumpling experience in Shanghai doesn’t end with XLB. There’s another local specialty that often gets overshadowed by its more famous counterpart – the sheng jian bao (SJB), or fried soup dumplings.

As Kenji explains, SJBs start with a slightly thicker dough that’s pleated around a gelatin-rich filling, just like XLB. But instead of being steamed, they’re cooked in a large, covered cast-iron pan with just enough water to steam them through. As the water evaporates, the dumplings fry up on the bottom, resulting in a tender, juice-filled bun with a crispy, golden-brown crust.

With that description alone, my taste buds were already tingling in anticipation. So we promptly made our way across the street to Yang’s Fry-Dumpling, another Shanghai institution renowned for its SJBs.

What struck me immediately was the distinct difference in the dough – thicker, oilier, and with hardly any of the stretchy, leavened quality of XLB wrappers. As the dumpling-making team worked their magic, I could see the dough being rolled out with oil rather than flour, creating a luxurious, semi-leavened texture.

When our order of sizzling SJBs arrived, I couldn’t wait to bite in. The first taste was revelatory – the crisp, crunchy bottom gave way to a tender, juicy interior that practically burst with savory soup. It was a completely different experience from the delicate XLB, but no less delightful.

Compared to the subpar SJBs I’d encountered in the US, these were nothing short of mind-blowing. The dough had just the right amount of chew, the filling was moist and flavorful, and that golden-brown, sizzling bottom was the stuff of my wildest soup dumpling dreams.

The Soup Dumplings of Yuyuan Bazaar

Of course, no visit to Shanghai’s soup dumpling scene would be complete without a stop at the legendary Yuyuan Bazaar, where you can find the colossal, straw-drinking variety of XLB. These behemoths, with their thick, plastic-like wrappers and pools of bland, watery broth, are the antithesis of the delicate, juicy dumplings we’d been savoring.

As Kenji aptly described, these oversized dumplings are more of a novelty than a culinary delight, illustrating the classic “square-cube law” in action. The thick wrapper is necessary to hold up the sheer volume of soup inside, but it renders the entire experience inedible.

My wife took one bite and immediately declared her disappointment, her face the perfect picture of disillusionment. While the concept of a soup-filled dumpling you need a straw to drink from sounds enticing, the reality is a far cry from the delightful, bite-sized perfection we had grown accustomed to.

Discovering the One-Dragon Restaurant

As we made our way back from Yuyuan Bazaar, still craving the sublime tastes of authentic XLB and SJB, we stumbled upon a gem – the One-Dragon Restaurant, a hidden Shanghai eatery specializing in traditional Shanghainese cuisine.

The moment we stepped through the doors, the aroma of sizzling dumplings and aromatic broths had us hooked. We quickly placed an order for a sampling of their finest soup dumplings, eager to see how they measured up to the titans we’d just encountered.

And let me tell you, this hidden gem did not disappoint. The XLBs were every bit as delicate and juicy as the ones at Jia Jia, with that perfect balance of savory broth and tender pork. And the SJBs – oh, the SJBs – were quite possibly the best I’d ever tasted, with a shatteringly crisp bottom and a fluffy, soup-filled interior.

As we savored each morsel, eyes rolling back in pure bliss, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude for this serendipitous discovery. The One-Dragon Restaurant had managed to capture the essence of Shanghai’s soup dumpling legacy, delivering an experience that rivaled even the most acclaimed institutions in the city.

Sinking My Teeth into Shanghai’s Soup Dumpling Culture

In the end, my quest to find the ultimate soup dumplings in Shanghai had been a resounding success. I had not only discovered the sublime delights of XLB and SJB, but I had also gained a deeper appreciation for the rich culinary traditions that underpin these iconic dishes.

From the lightning-fast dumpling assembly at Jia Jia to the sizzling, oil-brushed dough at Yang’s, I had borne witness to the dedication and skill of Shanghai’s soup dumpling masters. And in stumbling upon the One-Dragon Restaurant, I had found a hidden gem that managed to encapsulate the very essence of this beloved local cuisine.

As I sit here, reminiscing about those juicy, soup-filled bites, I can’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in Shanghai’s vibrant food culture. It’s an experience that has left an indelible mark on my palate and my heart, one that will undoubtedly have me craving a return trip to this culinary wonderland.

So if you ever find yourself in Shanghai, do yourself a favor and seek out the sizzling xiao long bao and sheng jian bao that have captured the hearts (and stomachs) of locals and visitors alike. Trust me, your taste buds will thank you.

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