IntroductionPronounced “show” (rhymes with cow) “long” “bow” (rhymes with cow), these little babies are the quintessential Shanghai cuisine. They originated here and they’ve been copied throughout China and Asia but Shanghai remains THE place to experience them. The Chinese name means “little basket dumplings” and they arrive at your table in a little bamboo steamer in groups of four to eight.
What Are They?Simply, xiao long bao are little balls of minced pork combined with jellified pork or chicken stock wrapped in a thin flour skin. During the steaming process, the stock liquefies creating soup within the dumpling. This is key, the pièce de résistance. The combination of flavors and textures makes this “snack” worth traveling for.
Why Are They So Good?It’s bite-sized comfort food. Picture this:
You await your order of xiao long bao. The steamer arrives. A waiter holds the tray and another removes the lid letting a cloud of steam escape from its bamboo confinement. He then sets the steamer in front of you. You’re so hungry, you want to scoop a dumpling onto your plate before the last of the steam cloud dissipates but that little voice inside your head says “Wait! They can hurt you!” And you know it, you’ve been burned before. Literally. Inside each of these little angels hides the hot soup that cradles the ball of minced pork. You sip your tea idly as the minutes tick by, waiting for the dumplings to cool.
Eventually, you can wait no longer. You delicately take a dumpling between two chopsticks, being careful not to puncture the thin flour wrapper. You gingerly dip it into a little Chinese vinegar and then pop the dumpling into your mouth savoring the sensation that bursts forth.
You carefully bite, letting the broth escape and fill your mouth. Then you chew, relishing the delicateness of the flour wrapper and the juiciness of the pork. You swallow. It was over too quickly. You open your eyes, look at the basket of diminished xiao long bao, look around at your dining partners and quickly snatch another one. The basket isn’t even finished and you’re already flagging down a waitress to order more.
Where Can You Get Them?The expectation is that the best place to eat xiao long bao is some undistinguished street stall but surprisingly, that isn’t the case.
The best, hands-down-no-one-will-argue-best, place to eat xiao long bao is Din Tai Fung. Originally from Taiwan, these guys have mastered the creation of the Shanghai dumplings. They follow strict guidelines actually weighing each ball of dough before wrapping the meat to ensure that the wrapper is consistently paper thin.
Read More: Din Tai Fung
Other popular places to eat xiao long bao are
Singapore celebrity chef Justin Quek has added his signature: foie gras pre-steam to give the little Shanghai dumplings a French twist. Be warned, if you’re an orthodox xiao long bao eater, you might be put off by this heretical supplement.
This popular eatery has all kinds of dumplings (dim sum) on offer and their xiao long bao are acceptable.
Famous as the inventor of xiao long bao, Nanxiang at the heart of the Yu Garden area (look for the line outside waiting for take-away xiao long bao) is the most famous. You can go inside and sit, but the tourist thing to do is wait in line for your 8rmb box of 16 xiao long bao. I waited over an hour one day doing the “tourist thing” but was slightly disappointed (you just can’t go back after you’ve done Din Tai Fung).