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November 14, 2010

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Divine dumpling: Xiaolongbao

The first time I realized that food could hurt me, I was seven years old and eating my first xiaolongbao (steamed dumpling).

When I bit in, the very hot soup inside burned my mouth and scalded my tongue. I had blisters for days.

Even so, my appetite for those typically round Shanghai dumplings, never dulled. I keep eating them and keep braving a burnt mouth.
Divine dumpling: Xiaolongbao

Gao Ceng

The first time I realized that food could hurt me, I was seven years old and eating my first xiaolongbao (steamed dumpling).

When I bit in, the very hot soup inside burned my mouth and scalded my tongue. I had blisters for days.

Even so, my appetite for those typically round Shanghai dumplings, never dulled. I keep eating them and keep braving a burnt mouth.

Xiaolongbao are sometimes called "soup dumplings"; several are cooked in small bamboo steamer baskets.

From the snack stalls in the lanes to luxury restaurants, people can be seen around a table, eating dumplings with gusto. They are especially appealing in winter when the steam from the dumplings rises into the cold air.

Many foreigners consider xiaolongbao a kind of dim sum, but it's more than dim sum, it's an art to prepare, with some dumpling makers tracing the origins of their skills back as far as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

While aficionados of the soup dumpling have long debated the most desired characteristics of the perfect xiaolongbao, I sought out the views of my elegant Shanghai 85-year-old grandmother, who has been eating the traditional Shanghai delicacy for most of her life.

She says the sign of the perfect dumpling is that it takes on a bell-like shape when in the steamer. But when lifted out with chopsticks, the filling delicately moves within the dumpling making it appear more like a lantern.

An expertly folded xiaolongbao, according to my grandmother, should, when looked at from above, to have twists in its doughy skin like the pleats of girl's skirt. A small hole in its top, if done by a master, should resemble the mouth of a carp.

The skin should be translucent so that on a sunny day the diner can just see the tasty filling.

Elastic dough

In south China the dough is kneaded hard by hand for a long time until it becomes elastic. The kneading process takes a lot of muscle and xiaolongbao makers all have strong, well-defined muscles.

The stuffing is usually made of pork, though other ingredients can be used, and a meat soup that has been cooled to firm, shiny gelatin. It is this gelatin that melts and turns to velvety tasty broth and that's what burns the mouth of careless eaters who slurp too soon.

Each restaurant famous for its xiaolongbao has a secret recipe for the filling and soup. Expert dumpling makers have their favorite part of the pig which they mince and they also use different broths, most commonly made from chicken and pork.

The art of wrapping is a marvel in itself. The practiced hands of a master can expertly fold more than 12 pleats into a single dumpling in seconds.

A typical xiaolongbao is 3cm wide and 2cm high and takes about 15 minutes to steam.

Finally, it's serving time. The dumplings are lifted gently from the basket with chopsticks, taking care not to break the fragile skin. Dumplings are then dipped into various sauces, commonly vinegar with shredded ginger. I personally like to fully immerse the bottom of the dumpling in sauce, but some restaurants don't encourage this, arguing that too much sauce covers the original flavor.

Then, to avoid getting burned by squirting soup, a small hole should be made in the skin, releasing and pressuring the soup. Some like to gently blow into the hole to cool the soup within the dumpling. With a bit of patience, the cooled soup can then be sipped from the dumpling or poured into a spoon.

The rest is easy. Some Shanghainese like to eat xiaolongbao with a bowl of egg drop soup. Every Shanghainese has their favorite way of savoring the delightful dumpling.

This week, we introduced four restaurants serving xiaolongbao, one faithfully following a recipe from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and another earning worldwide acclaim for its xiaolongao. Our other two choices offer some of the city's best dumplings in surrounds that conjure the grandeur of Shanghai's history or offer a tranquil escape from the urban jungle.

Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant

Set in the center of busy Yu Gardens, Nan Xiang is one of the few eateries in the city that every day has long queues of dumpling devotees waiting to sample its wares.

Waits can be more than an hour for the dumpling shop nestled in the ancient Ming and Qing Dynasty style architecture. Opened in 1900 by Wu Xinagsheng, the restaurant adheres faithfully to its founder's authentic and traditional workmanship in making dumplings.

Some claim Wu is the inventor of xiaolongbao, a claim still hotly contested to today. Regardless of the origins of the famous snack, eating in Nan Xiang is to experience a culinary tradition that has been handed down through the generations.

For xiaolongbao aficionados the skin is crucial. At Nan Xiang it is impressively delicate, not too thin but still transparent. Nan Xiang has moved with modern tastes and now offers other xiaolongbao varieties, however, their traditional pork dumplings are still the best.

Ye Shanghai

For those looking to add a touch of style to their sampling of Shanghai's famed xiaolongbao then this Xintiandi favorite offers a touch of old world 1930s Shanghai along with its expertly prepared dumplings.

From its live jazz band to its vintage Shikumen-style interior, stepping into Ye reminds one of the colorful past of a city that still knows how to have a good time.

But it doesn't rest on its atmospheric laurels, with its dumplings some of the best in town.

One of the highlights of its dumplings is the soup filling. Piping hot (inexperienced xiaolongbao eaters should proceed with care, even this local suffered a burnt tongue) and delicate in flavor, the soup in the crab dumpling is a particular standout.

Ding Tai Feng

This global chain is the undisputed king of the xiaolongbao scene. Ding Tai Feng, which grew from a small shop in Taiwan set up in the 1950s, confirmed its place at the apex of dumpling makers when its Hong Kong arm won a Michelin star in 2009 for its soup filled wonders.

In Shanghai its outlet is a firm favorite for those looking to leave the street stalls for a more refined xiaolongbao experience.

The restaurant provides 14 various kinds of xiaolongbao, although their pork and crab are the most popular.

Highly recommended is the innovative foie gras and chicken and black truffle with pork varieties, which showcase the creativity of the chefs in adapting this traditional Shanghai dish.

For those with a sweet tooth there are xiaolongbao desserts with the jujube filled dumpling a popular choice.

Jujube is a small red date and for this dumpling it is pureed and has a creamy texture that balances sweet with slightly sour undertones. Also, it is advisable to arrive at the restaurant well before its noon peak time.

Rui Jin No. 11

Its not often xiaolongbao comes with a natural escape from Shanghai's surrounding concrete jungle. But the restaurant in the historic Rui Jin Hotel is an idyllic setting to sample some expertly made dumplings.

The hotel's historical gardens, with a bubbling stream, quaint bridge and abundant bird life are a tranquil oasis for diners.

Floral scents, chirping birds and lush green garden views are the rewards for diners braving season chills to choose an outside seat. The restaurant helpfully provides a complimentary scarf for those unprepared for fickle autumn weather.

The xiaolongbao is a revelation. It is homey and welcoming rather than elegantly delicate; with bold ginger flavors that reminded this scribe of her mother's cooking.

The natural surrounds and peaceful ambience make this a hidden gem among Shanghai's xiaolongbao choices.

Address: Villa 11, 118 Ruijin Rd No.2,

Price: Pork xiaolongbao 24 yuan


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