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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ROAD TRIP: Shanghai - On the Hunt for Xiaolongbao

Shanghai is awesome.  At the same time it's old and new, hectic and tranquil, traditional and modern.  No other city I can think of can offer a view of turn of the 20th century baroque and art deco monoliths within 180 degrees of some of the tallest, most modern buildings in the world.  Where else can you walk from parks modeled after traditional English gardens to gardens built for emperors who never bothered to visit them?  You can walk down a quiet leafy street feeling like you're in Orleans, or even New Orleans, only to turn the corner and suddenly be underneath Shanghai's purple-lit, elevated highway. Coming from Beijing, probably the only city in the world that can compete with Shanghai in terms of new construction activity, it was like a slap in the face. Beijing was modern, but incredibly stoic, whether you're talking about its people or architecture.  It seems everything in Beijing is meant to intimidate.  Shanghai on the other hand is like the friendly uncle that you'd only see at Thanksgiving that would give you a sip of his whiskey when no one was looking. Then when adults started getting suspicious as to why you were all of a sudden slurring, would fall in line with the rest of the adults and give you an stern look.  In other words, there's few outward vestiges of communism in Shanghai.  Red stars that were prevalent on hats, cars, shop windows, etc. in Beijing were almost non-existent in Shanghai. And while the Mao mausoleum in Tiananmen Square had 3-hour long waits, the Shanghai site of the first meeting of China's communist party had barely a trickle of tourists.  Although bigger in population and the center of the Chinese financial world, Shanghai still plays second fiddle to Beijing on the tourist agenda.  It's hard to compete with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Peking duck. But The Bund, Yuyuan Garden and xiaolongbao would make Shanghai the prime destination of any other country in the world.

Shanghai was probably the city I've visited which filled the biggest gap between what I knew about the city before visiting and what I took away with me after leaving.  One thing I did know about Shanghai was that it was the center of the universe for one of my favorite snacks, xiaolongbao (aka soup dumplings).  For those not familiar with xiaolongbao they're incredibly delicate, thin skinned dumplings which contain a mix of ground meat (pork, chicken, etc.) and, more importantly, a bit of delicious porky broth that gushes out of the dumpling as soon as you bite into it.  They're difficult to make right, but when they are, there's nothing else like it.  I've survived on soup dumplings in the US for my forty-some odd years and now realize I've been seriously deprived.  Our stay in Shanghai was short, and there was an incredible array of dining options, so our exploration of xialongbao was limited.  Even still, we managed to hit some of the city's favorite soup dumpling spots and here's what we found.

China Art Museum at the
China Pavilion on the
site of the 2010 Expo
This place is in every guide, every website and pretty much every mention of xiaolongbao in Shanghai.  Jia Jia is centrally located off of People's Square park (again, one of those places that should be world famous but remains relatively unknown) and it's tiny, maybe 20 to 25 seats.  We arrived on a rainy afternoon at around 12:30 after visiting the spanking new China Art Museum, a museum so ostentatious and with such an impossible mission statement (to be the Chinese version of the Musee d'Orsay or The Whitney) we had to visit despite a ticketing system that does justice to the world's biggest bureaucracy (and that even our hotel concierge had trouble mastering).

Jia Jia Tangbao is difficult to find just because (i) there's no English signage, (ii) the address numbers in Shanghai are not always readily visible and (iii) Apple maps placed the restaurant in the middle of the Huangpu river.  Once you find it you get ecstatic.  Then you realize you're going to be dining in one of the most spartan, sparsely decorated places you'll ever eat (and by sparsely decorated I mean the cups holding the chopsticks at each table have to serve their utilitarian duty of, well, holding chopsticks as well as providing the only aesthetically pleasing decor in the place). I can deal with dives, but a dive in China has that little extra element of danger. The restaurant is cramped, dingy and incredibly humid, which I guess are the ideal conditions for dumpling-making. There's a guard/hostess at the entrance who takes your order, hands you a ticket then lets you fend for yourself to nab a precious, available seat.  She was incredibly efficient though, pulling out an English menu before I even opened my mouth (the alternative being ordering from a board with removable placards that are taken down as items run out).  There's only so many things you can stuff into a dumpling so ordering is quick.  I was proud of my order of one set (12 pieces) of pork ($2.00) and one set of pork+crab dumplings ($4.00).  While putting in the order D jostled for a table across from the open kitchen.

Furious dumplingmaking
Looking into the open kitchen you see a horde of dumplingmakers.  I hope there's a better term than that, kind of like barista is a better term for coffeemaker, but for now "dumplingmakers" will have to suffice.  And let me tell you, these ladies were badass at dumplingmaking.  About five ladies surrounded a mound of ground pork and crabmeat and churned out dumplings faster than (insert cliche for something that's really really fast here).  I've heard that well made dumplings should have a certain number of creases and the more creases the better and blah, blah, blah.  These dumplings could have no creases for all I care because within less than 10 minutes of ordering, our table got the first round of freshly steamed, piping hot dumplings along with our side of fresh sliced ginger (which cost an extra $0.10).
Hot out the steamer

Worried about seeming inexperienced in the correct way of eating xiaolongbao in the place where it was conceived, I intently watched the tourist channel at my hotel for an entire morning waiting for the excerpt on soup dumpling etiquette.  It turns out it's pretty simple.  First grab a dumpling with chopsticks and hold it over your spoon. Next take a bit out of the top of the dumpling and slurp out the soup.  This is the trickiest part as the soup may be scalding hot, causing you to burn every part of your mouth.  This may then lead you to let the dumplings cool which unfortunately makes the skin gummy and the soup fatty tasting (the broth is, after all, gelatinized into a solid first so it could be put in a dumpling, dissolving into a tasty broth when heated).  After leaving a gaping hole in your dumpling you dunk that puppy in vinegar and top with grated ginger.  It's like heaven when done correctly and Jia Jia's soup dumplings were incredible.  After the first bite they became my instant favorite. Until the pork+crab dumplings arrived.  I've always been a fan of the swine/seafood combo (chorizo and clams, lardons with mussels) and these dumplings brought the best of both worlds into one tiny package.  We splurged and ordered another dozen (again, these were $4.00).  I've resigned myself to knowing I will never have a soup dumpling experience like this outside of Shanghai ever again.  The mix of ingredients, freshness, kitsch and the absurd value make it special.  So how to top this experience...?

The Yuyuan complex is one of the must sees in Shanghai.  It's a sprawling area of shops ("Rolex sir?  Would you like to buy Rolex?  Or Gucci, ma'am, would you like to see Gucci?") and food stalls that you must maneuver in order to get to the beautiful central courtyard with koi ponds and the nine corner bridge (evil spirits hate corners so if one is following you, head to this bridge and that spirit is S.O.L.).  One of the attractions of this central area is the Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant which has served xiaolongbao to hungry shoppers and visitors alike for over 100 years.  There are plenty of imitators in the area.  Just know the more signs there are touting the restaurant, the faker it is.  Nanxiang is very nondescript, until you see the line.  The endless line.  The endless, non-moving line.  Then you know you've reached the place and you're deciding what you're next move will be because you're not going to stand in line for hours for any kind of food.  So you make your way up to the third floor where instead of waiting to get your dumplings at a window you get to sit and have them brought to you.  With a slightly smaller line but a minimum charge per person it can be a turnoff.  The happy medium lies on the second floor, where you order from a hostess and fend for your own seat (sound familiar!?).

Jumbo xiaolongbao
and stinky tofu
Now accustomed to such processes, we opted to dine on the second floor where only one type of dumpling, pork, is served at a cost of about $3.50 for 12 pieces.  There's also the kitschy jumbo dumplings that come with straws to suck out the broth.  Someone like me would never be caught dead tucking into one of these so I made sure my pics were only of the dumpling and not of me enjoying them.  And enjoy them I did along with another Naxiang specialty, fried stinky tofu, or tofu injected with bacteria which impart a funkiness to the tofu, much like it does to blue cheese, etc.  The result is a deep, flavorful tofu with enough umami to make soy sauce its little b-tch.
Not so great dumplings

But Nanxiang is about dumplings and the pork dumplings we ordered were, frankly, disappointing.  Thick skin that sometimes stuck to the bamboo and tore, releasing the soup and making it just a plain old dumpling.  After reading, hearing and seeing so much about Nanxiang my expectations were huge.  I wanted to warn the people waiting in the endless line to turn around and grab a pigeon on a stick instead.  But Nanxiang is a tradition in Shanghai and although some traditional places have lost their way, there are those that see past faults and inadequacies just to grab onto some old memory of what was once great.  So what do you do if an old stalwart dissappoints...?

Wait a minute, a Taiwanese restaurant expanded to Shanghai and had the audacity to serve its denizens the very food that is most associated with their city?  That's exactly what Din Tai Fung did, and to huge success. The Taiwanese chain has expanded worldwide to build an empire spanning mainland China, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and beyond.  The gripe with DTF?  The price.  Xiaolongbao enthusiasts find paying $7.00 to $10.00 for an order absurd. But from experience, the price tag is worth it.  DTF goes a bit beyond the offerings of specialty dumpling places, adding truffle dumplings and pork/liver dumplings to the usual pork, crab, etc.  The setting is also a heck of a lot more upscale so you're paying extra for unheard-of-at-divey-dumpling house things like napkins, plates, placemats and a waitress.

For the uninitiated
Din Tai Fung also gives you a handy guide on how to eat soup dumplings which, to my horror, differed from the tourism video lady (I knew I shouldn't have trusted her, her English was way too good).  Apparently the order of the process should be grab, dunk in vinegar, place in spoon, pierce, top with ginger, enjoy.  I'd apparently been eating like a heathen for my first two days in Shanghai.  No longer, I adopted DTF's method and became an expert.
Double the price,
half the portion

As expected, the dumplings here were as good as they should be.  Thin skin, rich broth and the differentiator of having out of the ordinary offerings (both of which we tried, the liver and truffle, overpowered the rest of the fillings).  They truly were superior to those at Jia Jia, but in the same way that a Mozart concerto is technically superior to a Green Day single.

So in my mini-xiaolongbao battle in Shanghai the winner is Jia Jia Tangbao.  Great dumplings in a sufficiently suspect environment and dirt cheap.  The value proposition makes it the obvious choice, although if you want less of a hassle, Din Tai Fung is the place the head to.  Jia Jia Tangbao isn't a secret and the lines outside give away that this place is special.

Follow the line to Jia Jia Tangbao

1 comment:

  1. Hadn't read this. Great update def one for the pocket if and when I make it there