While doing research prior to my Shanghai visit in June, I found that there was a dearth of information about local cuisine. The common refrain is that Shanghainese cuisine does not exist. Not very helpful there. Also, due to the city’s status as an economic and trading hub, its food culture borrows heavily from other parts of China and of course, the world. However, unlike Singapore or Taiwan where this kind of culinary traffic jam evolved into a distinctive local cuisine, I couldn’t find a similar story with food in Shanghai. Regionalism is so firmly entrenched that Hunanese cuisine in Shanghai remained Hunanese, Xinjiang food stayed true to Xinjiang, and so on.
Fortunately, there was one dish that people seemed to associate with Shanghai and that would be hsiao lung bao, the bite sized soup dumplings familiar to many a dim sum eater. Since my time and stomach space was limited, I only wanted to try the best that Shanghai could offer. It seemed that identifying the best would be no easy task. The food forums definitely had opinions as to which hsiao lung bao (XLB) joints were the best, and the three that kept coming up were Jia Jia Tang Bao, Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, and Ding Tai Fung. With no clear cut winner crowned as of yet, I took it upon myself as an expert dumpling eater to try all three places and decide once and for all — Whose dumplings reign supreme?
The rules and criteria:
1. I had to order the standard fare of pork dumplings at each restaurant.
2. My meal had to be taken on an empty stomach so as to not be biased by space constraints.
3. Unit price could not be a factor (keeps my frugal nature at bay) .
4. The dumplings were to be judged on filling, broth, and most importantly, skin. The filling should be light and the broth should be slurp worthy. The skin is the most difficult to execute and when done well, is firm yet pliant, slightly translucent yet strong.
5. For an added bonus, it just so happened that I was miserable and hungry before going into each restaurant because I had been walking for miles and miles prior to eating and was either warm from the heat or soaking wet from unrelenting rain. Therefore, each place had the benefit of being my “salvation” so to speak.
The first place I trudged into was Ding Tai Fung, an international chain from Taiwan with multiple locations in Shanghai. This was a brand familiar to me having visited their outpost in Arcadia, CA numerous times. After a long day at the Expo, I decided on the Ding Tai Fung location in Xin Tian Di, a ritzy shopping mall that is multi-story glass and steel on one side and opens up to an open air mall modeled after some kitschy European town. The place was brimming with high end brands and overflowing with westerners enjoying their cigarettes on the patio of some English pub or Latin fusion restaurant.
I ordered a bamboo basket of the original steamed pork dumplings along with a side of a dish of cold cucumbers in chili and a pot of excellent Dragon’s Well tea. True to form, the XLB at DTF were incredibly delicious. Juicy dollops of ground pork swimming in broth were encased in a transluscent skin. Good dumpling skin is hard to achieve and DTF was able to do it well. It was thin, but pliant and strong.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
I made my visit to Jia Jia Tang Bao on a non-Expo day where I planned to walk from Nanjing West Road to the Bund. There’s a branch of Jia Jia Tang Bao on Huanghe Road, north of Nanjing Road just by People’s Park. A big banner at the entrance to Huanghe Road marks the spot, calling it Lie Fallow Street in English with words in Chinese designating this as “Gourmet Street”. When translated figuratively, gourmet doesn’t necessarily mean Zagat or Michelin, just that good food is to be had.
Don’t ask me why it is called Lie Fallow Street, but Huanghe Road was a nice change compared to the wide Nanjing Road thoroughfare which was lined with modern stores, towering hotels, and new car dealerships. This was a gritty neighborhood street and everywhere I looked, there were hole-in-the-wall food stalls next to sit-down restaurants with big tables and lazy susans. I meandered down until I found Jia Jia Tang Bao, which was right across the street from Yang’s Fried Dumplings. It was barely 11:30am and the line for Jia Jia had already started.
This is a tiny joint that seats about 20 people at most, with tourists and locals at knees and elbows with each other. The menu was all in simplified Chinese but thankfully, I was able figure out how to order the pork dumplings. Jia Jia makes dumplings only when an order is placed, meaning that the wait for food takes about 20 minutes or more. Since the place was so crowded, I decided to take my lunch over to People’s Park for some al fresco dining.
Unfortunately, Jia Jia was a disappointment. The skin was soft and soggy while the broth was overly salty and greasy. I also bit down on some bone in the filling which was rather unpleasant. It’s possible that my five minute jaunt to the park caused the skin to flab so I’ll give them a pass on that category. For the folks who say JJ is better than DTF or Nanxiang, I have to wonder if they are talking with their pocket books rather than with their palate. A dozen XLB a Jia Jia runs about 10 RMB if that. A buck and change for lunch? No wonder people are salivating all over themselves. Supposedly their crab roe dumplings are amazing so perhaps those will live up to the hype.
Nanxiang Dumpling House
The final contestant in Battle Hsiao Lung Bao was Nanxiang Dumpling House, of which there are several locations, including one at the Expo. I opted for the location above 85C Cafe by Wu Jian Pedestrian Plaza one rainy afternoon. I ordered pork dumplings and a side of julienned snow peas with carrots and tofu, a tasty dish that I had a few times in Shanghai. For some variety, I did order some crab and pork dumplings as well. Nanxiang’s dumplings were definitely above average with a decent broth that a little too porky for me. But the skin was not as good as DTF’s, though it was better than Jia Jia’s, having been able to retain its texture. The crab and pork XLB were just so so.
So, after doing the rounds in Shanghai, I have cast my vote and the winner is…..like it wasn’t already obvious…
Ding Tai Fung – winner for best filling, broth, and skin.
And the runner ups….
Nanxiang – will fit the bill if you want good hsiao lung bao but I would eat at DTF if the option was available.
Jia Jia Tang Bao – if you have a limited budget, this place is for you.
Ding Tai Fung – various locations: I can only pinpoint the one at Xin Tian Di 123 XingYe Lane and another by Yu Garden.
Nanxiang – various locations: by Wu Jiang Lu. Take the subway to Nanjing Rd West station, take Exit #3. When you exit, turn left and walk through the pedestrian plaza. You should come to 85C Cafe and Bakery on the left. Nanxiang is on the second floor. I know there is a location by Yu Garden, as well as one at the Expo. There is a Yang’s Fried Dumplings on the second floor as well.
Jia Jia Tang Bao – 90 Huang He Rd. It runs perpendicular to Nanjing Road, north of People’s Park. I heard they opened another location somewhere in Shanghai.