Dumplings: A Love Story

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dumpling baskets
Taking a break after the steamed bun lunch rush

As you may have read last week, I recently returned from China where I spent five days in Shanghai and a hot minute in Hong Kong (two days). While there, we visited the World Expo, did a lot of sightseeing, a bit of shopping, and lots of eating. In particular, lots of dumplings. Last week, I wrote a post about eating out in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but I omitted a major discussion of our dumpling forays because they really deserve their own post. So here we are.

Now the first thing to know about Shanghai is that they're famous for their xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. These dumplings are traditionally steamed in small bamboo baskets, ("xiaolong" translates literally to "small steaming basket"), and are comprised of a super thin almost translucent skin, rich broth, and savory fillings.

 Varied Dumplings
From the fanciest of restaurants, the most common of market stalls, and even on the go in little cups, Chinese dumplings are where it's at.

Buns vs. Dumplings
When we first arrived in Shanghai, we realized that in the States, we'd just been lumping virtually everything that looked like a dumpling into that category and calling it a day. In reality, there's a distinct difference between buns and dumplings. Steamed buns that are made with raised flour are referred to as baozi and are typically white, fluffy and "breadier" as my sisters would say. Steamed buns that are made with unraised flour such as the xiao long bao have a smoother almost translucent skin and are more commonly seen in the South. Then to confuse things even more, you have the jiaozi: what most Americans consider a pot sticker but the Chinese consider a true dumpling. Jiaozi consist of a savory filling as well but are wrapped into a thinly rolled piece of dough and crimped and sealed along the edges. So by trial and error and a few ordering missteps, we learned the differences quickly and began trying everything from dessert buns, jiaozi, and many kinds of xioa long bao.


Where to Get Your Hands on One (or Ten)
This list is my no means exhaustive nor do I think it's at all a "Best Of" list. I just didn’t try enough dumplings to write with that kind of authority (all the more reason to return). But it is a brief tour of what I found to be the best of what I tried. So without further ado, here are the highlights of a few days in China, dumpling style.

The Four Seasons
It's a little ritzy and probably not the most authentic bun you'll ever have, but we found The Four Seasons made extremely reliable steamed buns filled with a variety of filings including a flavorful pork and onion and a spinach and mushroom. The exterior of the buns was light and fluffy--dangerously so as we found ourselves downing more than our fair share and needing a nap before our next sightseeing stop. For us, the location was convenient (and they also do a mean congee that I'll try and replicate at home), and unlike many more causal spots, they offer a wide variety of pickled vegetables, eggs, and vinegars to accompany the buns. So while this isn't a spot where locals congregate and while they're much pricier than street-side buns, it's worth a stop if you're in the mood to treat yourself to a nice, air-conditioned dim sum lunch.

4 seasons pickles and eggs
The Four Seasons: 500 Weihai Road, Shanghai China 200041; 86 (21) 6256-8888

Din Tai Fung
The mention of Din Tai Fung elicits a response from tourists and locals alike. It's either an extremely positive one or a heartfelt negative one--rarely did I find an in between. That's because their xiao long bao are the best I've ever had. So what's the problem? A few things: they're located in a rather sterile shopping mall, they're a chain with locations all around Asia and even Southern California, and they actually originated in Taiwan. So for folks coming to China and wanting to try authentic xiao long bao, some look down upon Din Tai Fung because it didn't even start in Shanghai. I have to say, I think this is one of those small facts you should overlook when doing a dumpling tour of the city. You must try these. They are damn fine soup dumplings--extremely addictive with utterly translucent skin, rich broth, and an impressive variety of fillings to choose from. They drape perfectly onto your soup spoon and the attentive wait staff will even show newcomers the best way to eat them (I just pop the whole thing right in my mouth but apparently some people like to suck the soup part out first). If I lived in Shanghai, I'd be a regular. For sure.

din tai fung dumplings
Din Tai Fung: South Block Xintiandi|Unit 11, House 6, Ln. 123 Xingye Lu (Huangpi Lu) Shanghai, China

We were in Hong Kong less than two days, so we spent most of the time racing to get in some major sightseeing. But I did insist on dumplings, so our family friend who lives right outside of Hong Kong took us to get dim sum at his favorite spot. He chose Heichinrou which is located in a large shopping center right along Causeway Bay. Their menu rotates seasonally and features numerous mostly Cantonese dishes. The place was filled with locals, the staff were jamming out baskets and baskets of steamed buns and jiaozi, bowls of steaming noodles, plates of sliced barbecued pork, and beautiful Chinese vegetables. We tried shrimp jiaozi and mixed mushroom jiaozi along with steamed pork buns (much like pulled pork in a delightfully fluffy dumpling--kind of the perfect food if you ask me). Looking around, many tables were getting stacks of the bamboo baskets, relying strictly on dumplings for their lunchtime meal. And I can see why. They were heavenly.

Heichinrou: Shop 1003, 10th Floor, Times Square; 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong; 852 - 2506 2333


A Few Other Spots:
There are only so many dumplings a girl can eat, and there were many more I wanted to try. My one regret was not having enough time to eat more street food while in China. Let's just say I wasn't traveling with the most adventurous group and we were pretty darn short on time, so I'm already compiling a list for my next trip. Here are a few casual spots I'd heard about that came highly recommended and that have made my list for the next go-around. If you find yourself in Shanghai anytime soon, I know they're worth a try. Who knows? I may be right there with you in line:

  • Jia Jia Tang Bao
    They are supposedly cheaper than Din Tai Fung although the lines can often be so great that they run out before 1 p.m. A locals favorite--I wish I could've carved out the time to sneak over.
    90 Huanghe Lu, near Fengyang Lu in Shanghai; 021-63276878
  • Shanghai Ren Jia
    Locals also love this spot, and they have the unique and not nearly as common, Tang Bao, a larger soup dumplings with a thicker skin. Many people think of the skin as more of a vehicle to hold the soup rather than an integral part of the dumpling itself. Most spots serving tang bao give diners a straw with which to suck the soup through.
    1600 Nanjing Lu near Changde Lu (Jing'an Temple Area)
  • Yang’s Fried Dumplings:
    Yang's doesn't have xiao long bao or the more novel tang bao, but everyone seems to know about Yang's. Sixteen years in business, long lines, and dumplings right out of the pan topped with sesame seeds and scallions has earned them bragging rights.
    54 Wujiang Lu and 60 Wujiang Lu