Soup dumplings are to Shanghai what a slice of pizza is to New York: quintessential, and the source of never-ending debate. Is it crucial that the skin is so thin that all you taste is the pork filling? Is it progress or heresy to eat soup dumplings that cost more than 1RMB each? If a polished Taiwanese chain (like Din Tai Fung) perfects the folds, standardises the process and does it with great service, is it worth five times the price? Is it even Shanghainese?
The most important question is: “Have you had sheng jian bao?” Soup dumplings – xiao long bao – are international these days, but sheng jian bao, their pan-fried cousins, remain resolutely Shanghainese. They are a pan-fried twist on the inside-out dumpling, in which the soup, a porky broth, is actually inside the dumpling. Their heftier casing, which can range from a thin potsticker-like wrapper to a fluffy bun, can withstand the heat of being crisped in a shallow iron pan until the bottom is brown and crunchy and the soup inside is nuclear. Doused with fragrant brown vinegar, they are the city’s best greasy-food experience.
Until recently, sheng jian bao were almost exclusively a cheap street snack. But even the bargain dumpling can’t escape this city’s drive for modernisation, and the last decade has seen some of the old shops, such as Da Hu Chun, revamp their old holes-inthe-wall, and new chains emerge with – gasp – a few tables where you can sit down, plus new-fangled dumpling fillings. Xiao Yang’s is the reigning champ, with more than 60 outlets across the city, but it’s not hard to find a sheng jian bao whenever you may need one – just look for a wide black pan at the front of the establishment.
Lin Long Fang is of the ‘thin wrapper’ school. There’s a danger in this approach: make the skins too thin or steam them ahead of time (a common practice) and they’ll break. This is a fatal mistake in the world of soup dumplings. Break the skin and spill the soup that’s inside, and you don’t have a soup dumpling – you just have a dumpling. To that end, the cooks at Lin Long Fang are constantly crowded around a stainless steel worktable, pinching and rolling out dough, filling and pleating dumplings and then steaming them to order.
The difference is noticeable. The typical way to eat soup dumplings is to bite off a corner, let some of the steam escape and then suck out the soup, before eating the rest of the dumpling. That’s all fine and good, and totally applicable here. But when the wrappers are this thin, there’s another way. Let the dumplings cool for a minute or two – just long enough not to burn yourself. And then pop the entire thing in your mouth. As you bite through the wrapper, you get the full rush of soup, together with the rest of the dumpling. Some might call it heresy, but it’s delicious.
Fuchun is at the other end of the spectrum to Lin Long Fang. The wrappers are secondary. The crowds – and if you come at lunchtime, damn, the crowds! – are here for Shanghai nostalgia. And pork. Shanghai’s classic pounded and fried pork chop is on almost every table, along with a basket of plain pork soup dumplings. The older generation that frequents the place swears that the key to a good soup dumpling is the flavour of the pork filling. It should be strong and savoury, not tame as it is with the newer, leaner pigs, and the former is what Fuchun delivers. (A sly addition of soy sauce to the filling helps, even though they usually deny doing it.)
Like every restaurant that scores a hit in China, Fuchun has opened a few outlets around the city. The original is chaos, and snagging a seat is a brutal lesson in selfishness. Don’t bother. The one on the Jumen Road has room to breathe, is off the tourist radar and does exactly the same dishes in exactly the same way. There is a lot to choose from besides the soup dumplings – the menu is a catalogue of Shanghainese dim sum. Other standouts are the fresh tofu, served warm like custard, and the small wontons filled with pork and chopped shepherd’s purse.
Sheng jian bao are the barrel-chested older brother to Shanghai soup dumplings. They come from the same inside-out family, with the soup in the dumpling, but prefer the skillet to the steamer. The big name in sheng jian bao in Shanghai is Xiao Yang’s, which sprung up in the 1990s and has since put a shop on just about every street corner.
To Dong Tai Xiang, however, they are an interloper. This lesser-known enterprise champions an older way of making dumplings, one that predates Xiao Yang with its thin skin and oversized fillings. At Dong Tai Xiang, the dough for the wrapper is slightly raised, so there’s a little ‘puff’ to it, and the dumplings are a touch smaller. It might seem like a trivial family feud, but to Dong Tai Xiang, at least, it’s serious. The restaurant’s business card proudly proclaims it is more than just a cousin – more than just a restaurant, it is, in fact, an “Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Project”. And should you feel the need to weigh in on this dispute at three in the morning, Dong Tai Xiang is open 24 hours.
Da Hu Chun is the oldest of the sheng jian bao shops, a throwback from a time when the soup didn’t come in the dumplings – it came on the side. Now in its ninth decade, the shop has a strong following among Shanghainese who prefer their puffy wrapper (more like a steamed bun), a touch of sweetness and soy sauce in the pork filling, and a smaller size. The brand has struggled under its state ownership, and the city is dotted with grimy holes-in-the-wall that bear the same name and dumplings as this store, relics of an earlier time.
The Middle Sichuan Road location is by far the best, with an airy and clean dining room decorated with Shanghainese memorabilia and red paper lanterns. It sits one block back from the Bund – tourist central – but the customers are resolutely local, in for a plate of sheng jian bao and a bowl of thin curried beef soup. In a nod to the times, they’ve added shrimp and, strangely, a clam filling to the options, but the classic pork is still the best.