I could tell you that we went to Shanghai for a lot of reasons. But I'd be lying. We went to gorge ourselves silly on soup dumplings and pound our faces into stacks of steamers in an attempt to unravel some of their enticing mysteries.
Xiao long bao as they were meant to be eaten- in ridiculous quantities.
My gallbladder is now a soup dumpling.
In the last few years xiao long bao (literally "small steaming basket bun") have passed from simple lunch food to full on cult-following, throw-your-panties, rockstar status. Like with pizza in Naples or brisket in Texas, the debate over the perfect XLB has been known to cause frothy mouthed, bloody knuckled feuds.
The kitchen at Lin Long Fang. Supposedly teenaged girls make the perfect XLB. Like carnies they've got tiny hands.
And even though what I am about to tell you is 100% correct, totally inarguable, and in no way subjective, please don't attack me physically. Thank you in advance.
You may remember our first foray into the land of xiao long bao a couple of weeks ago over at Din Tai Fung. The place is a worthy primer and I was glad we stopped by before we showed up in Shanghai at soup dumpling ground zero.
But let's get down to the meaty, juicy heart of the matter.
Section I: Know your dumpling.
1) XLB are single bite, spoon filling creations. If you are confronted with a similar object but of significantly greater size, one of two things is possible a) someone in the back has huge donkey hands and a terrible sense of perspective or b) (and this is much more likely) you've been given a tang bao.
Like the square to the rectangle, all xiao long bao are tang bao but not vice versa. If a dumpling looks like the xiao long's husky cousin, call it a tang. With 4 to 6 in a steamer compared with XLB's dozen, these butch buns are just big boned.
Handy reference: print out a life sized photo of Rachel's head and hold it up to anything you're about to eat. If they are the same size, you're not eating an excellent soup dumpling.
Big pile o' bamboo steamers with salt yolks underneath. Although I think these dumplings might be rejects.
2) XLB are always steamed. If any part of your dumpling skin is crispy, crunchy or anything but pure tender pasta goodness you have not been successful in finding a perfect soup dumpling. If you're lucky you've procured a fry dumpling (sheng jian bao, 杨生煎) the most delicious and desirable of the XLB's relatives.
SJB- fantastic but not a true soup dumpling.
If you're not lucky, someone has a tiny black heart and has left your dumpling out to ossify to a stale mockery of its intended glory.
3) Some people spend a lot of energy debating whether XLB are bona fide dumplings (jiaozi) or are more accurately mantou, or buns. This is a dumb argument and I don't care.
Section II: Why does this dumpling kick so much ass while other ones suck like a jacuzzi intake valve?
1) Let's start with what XLB aren't: whatever else they might be, xiao long bao are most definitely not gummy, dry, sad little gray blobs, squatting in their own individual sized muffin tins. No. No no no. That is so very wrong.
2) Once you've established proper size and cooking method (q.v. Section I) here are some other criteria to look out for:
i) Most importantly, the outside of an XLB should remain structurally sound. If a soup dumpling ruptures in route from steamer to mouth it's just a dumpling, with no remaining claim to soup fame. Boo.
ii) While it's holding all of its goodness together it should do so just barely. A fantastic XLB has a built in tension like well written drama; you're always wondering if everything is going to go to shit just before the climax. You can eat pork and runny gelatin out of the waistband of my Calvin Kleins without worrying that everything will explode, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Look at all those hints of barely contained drool-on-my-pants mystery. WHAT'S IN THERE?!
iii) A proper xiao long bao skin is teasingly translucent. It should offer tantalizing peeks of the succulent hidden bits, a sort of fully edible burlesque performer if you will. Without the boa.
iv) The top of a archetypical XLB should be fully closed but not so bunched that you end up with a doughy mouthful of distracting wrapper. Overly crimped dumplings don't cook uniformly and they make me sad.
i)They're called soup dumplings for a reason. A proper XLB should sag when you pick it up, barely containing the sloshing pool of melted aspic inside. If pressed, I would say that a perfect filling is 3/5th solid to 2/5th liquid. Maybe even half-and-half.
The menu at Jia Jia.
ii)Any number of flavor options are appropriate and it largely comes down to a matter of personal taste. I will say that all of the truly superior XLB we've tried have some percentage of pork as an ingredient.
If you're keeping track, my all time favorite filling combination is ground pork with salted duck yolk. Something about the creamy just-set egg mingles with the piquant meat to set off a sort of unholy flavor alchemy that tricks your brain into thinking it MUST EAT MORE DUMPLINGS!
Fat crab XLB.
A legitimate non-porcine subgenera of XLB is the pure crab variety. These are often larger and more aqueous; closer to a barely contained stew of crab and crab coral than a liquid/solid partnership. Probably best classified as tang bao if you wanna get specific.
They can be 10 times the price with a corresponding richness so factor that in to your ordering stratagem.
Section III: Eating method.
Elsewhere on the internets you'll find spirited discussions and multistep diagrams on the proper method for eating XLB. Fuck that. Never tell another man how to eat his dumpling. Xiao long bao are fun, unwieldy, and occasionally scaldingly aggressive. Get them in your mouth accordingly.
Section IV: Accouterments.
N.B. You should definitely try some of the dumplings unadulterated. An ideal XLB will be a self contained packet of balanced deliciousness. That being said though, personal tweaking is encouraged.
This is that famed salted duck egg version from Jia Jia that I was talking about by the way. Eat it.
1) Xiao long bao are classically served with a mild and lightly sweet, caramel colored vinegar; a tangy hint of sugar to balance the salty savoriness. The best versions will have finely sliced ginger macerating in the dish. In the exemplary versions the ginger will be hand cut into a fine doll's hair thickness rather than fat little match stick batons. Most places make you pay a token fee but you'll almost never get it unless you ask- so stay alert and use your words.
2) The second most common condiment is a fresh chili sauce. Unnecessary to be sure, and considered heretical by some, it is nevertheless a fine addition and helps to punctuate an intensive soup dumpling consumption outing.
With that you are armed with the basics. We've pretty much wrapped up the magical land of the xiao long bao.
These are the places in and around Shanghai that we tried and what we thought of them:
Jia Jia Tang Bao 佳家汤包 A+
90 Huanghe Lu (near Fengyang Lu)
Lin Long Fang 麟笼坊特色小笼包 A
10 Jianguo Lu (near Zhaozhou Lu)
Shan Shan Xiao Long Guan 珊珊小笼馆 B-
749 Kang Ding Lu
Jiag'an District, Shanghai
Xi Sheng Yuan 熙盛源 C
(Just outside Shanghai in the town of Suzhou)
43 Fenghuang Jie
Canglang District, Suzhou City
Vegetarian Lifestyle 枣子树 D
This place makes no claim to specialize in XLB and their other food is quite excellent. Go here for innovative vegetarian fare but give the soup dumplings a pass.
77 Songshan Lu (near Huaihai Lu)
(Several other branches in town)
Suzhou Tang Bao Guan 苏州汤包馆 C+
Not true XLB but Tang Bao
260A Jiaozhou Road (near Xinzha)
Jian'an District, Shanghai
Yang' s Fried Dumplings 小杨生煎馆 A
Sheng Jian Mantou not XLB- See Below.
97 Huanghe Lu (near Fengyang Lu)
Right across the street from Jia Jia Tang Bao
(Several other branches in town)
Bonus Post Script (lucky you!):
Decorating the SJB.
As I mentioned before, the sheng jian bao or fry dumpling is a closely related and particularly sapid family member of the XLB family. It's larger, thicker skinned, closer to spherical, and a bit breadier than our more delicate protagonist.
It has a substantial pan fried bottom with a garland of toasted sesame and chopped scallion.
Glisten all over me.
The SJB may contain even more soupy liquid than the smaller soup dumpling and poses quite a threat to dark colored clothing and carelessly placed accessories. Not that I have any personal knowledge of this.
That pile of pork jiggles like crazy when they bump the table.
The best SJB we had are at Yang's Fried-Dumpling.
The front of Yang's.
Order more than you think you'll need.