The Great Xiaolongbao Debate

Any Shanghai denizen who has lived in our fair city for longer than a few months worships at the altar of xiaolongbao (小笼包). Tiny pork dumplings with a slurp of soup wrapped up in a wonton wrapper, these steamed buns of goodness have inspired an epic (and edible) bike ride, pushed one of our favorite food bloggers to the next round of blogging competitions with a detailed DIY post, merited a lengthy report card on Chowhound, been glorified in writing, and (most recently) inspired a plea to please calm down because it’s just a dumpling (clearly, the writer has never eaten a good xiaolongbao or his voice would join the cacophony of bickering over skin thickness). Even the New York Times has gotten in on the xiaolongbao action. Xiaolongbao (or XLBs to those in the know) are southern China’s answer to the north’s delicious jiaozi (饺子 dumplings), and, as we mentioned above, a source of incessant in-fighting among Shanghai’s fiercest foodies. We all have our favorite joints and the truth varies, depending on whether you prioritize the breadth of the skin over the quality of the soup (which is less soup and more liquefied gelatinous pork fat. And yes, that is better than it sounds). That being said – if anyone tells you the best XLB in the city are at Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung, turn on your heel and run. And avoid the historic Nanxiang tourist trap at all costs. But we’re not here to tell you where not to eat. In our humble (but correct) opinions, there is no single winner of the great xiaolongbao debate – and that’s not just because we like riding the fence. There are two camps of XLB: Nanjing soup dumplings and traditional Shanghainese. In these two categories, we have clear winners. Introducing the winner of the Shanghainese battle, the pride of the Paris of the Orient, the proprietor of the juiciest xiaolongbao joint in the city is: Fu Chun. It’s a hole in the wall, and it’s delicious. Speaking of holes in the wall, enter Nanjing’s best import to Shanghai, the simply named Nanjing Soup Dumpling stall on Jianguo Xi Lu (cross street Gao’an Lu). Fu Chun’s XLBs boast heartier skins and a sweeter soup, while Nanjing Soup Dumpling’s offering has skin so thin it’s almost translucent and a more savory broth. Either regional favorite XLB you choose, the eating method is the same. Order a long (笼 steamer basket, usually containing eight glorious buns). While it’s steaming ask for an order of ginger (生姜 shengjiang) and fill up a dipping dish of vinegar and plunk the slivers of ginger into the sauce to flavor it. When the basket of xiaolongbao arrive, WAIT! If you bite right into one of these suckers, the soup will squirt out and leave an unsightly burn on your face. Use your chopsticks to dip the XLB into the ginger-vinegar sauce, then place the bun in your soup spoon. This is in case the skin splits – you don’t want to lose any of the precious soup. Carefully take a bite out of the top (or the side) and let the steam escape. Then carefully suck out the succulent juice of the xiaolongbao. A second dip into the sauce wouldn’t go amiss after you’ve drained the melted pork fat. Cue the swan song and pop the xiaolongbao in your mouth whole. Savor. Repeat. This is merely a loving ode to the standard pork xiaolongbao. We could go into the high-class XLB filled with pork and crab roe, but we’ll save that one for another day. Until then, if you’re hungry for more xiaolongbao, join UnTour Shanghai‘s Morning Street Eats culinary tour or our Flavors of China restaurant extravaganza!

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