Xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, are an emblematic piece of Shanghai cuisine. They’re a testament to the chef’s skill – ideally, the dumpling will have a thin, thin skin which gives instantly to the teeth, but still has enough integrity to hold in a spoonful of soup alongside the dense pork filling. That soup doesn’t appear until the dumplings are cooked; it’s created when a jellied stock, which is solid when cold, is mixed in with the meat filling, melting with the heat from steaming.
There’s a bit of etiquette involved in eating a Xiao long bao. Pick the bun up by the “knot” on the top with your chopsticks, dip it in the black vinegar and shredded ginger mixture on your table, and place the bun in your little spoon. Use chopsticks or teeth to make a little hole in the side of the bao, allowing the rich soup to leak out into the spoon. Eat the dumpling (carefully – if cooked properly, it should be hot enough to fetch the skin off your tongue) and slurp the soup from the spoon.
Xiao long bao are available all over the city, and some are much, much better than others on offer. I had some surprisingly good ones alongside some surprisingly bad ones at the surprisingly grotty Hilton (unfortunately, while they’d turned out enjoyable, if somewhat MSG-tacular dumplings for a couple of days, they screwed up on our last morning and the few I had there for breakfast on our last day turned out to be tepid, resulting in an 11-hour flight spent developing a close relationship with the airline toilet. Learn the lesson I didn’t – don’t eat a tepid dumpling).
Queues of locals snaking out of a restaurant are a great sign. If you’re visiting the People’s Square or the excellent Shanghai Museum, head for Jia Jia Tan Bao – you’ll spot the restaurant long before you get there from its queue. My favourites were the dumplings at Nan Xiang (sometimes transliterated as Nanxiang), probably Shanghai’s most celebrated dumpling stop.
Nan Xiang is an institution that the city is so proud of that a canteen-style branch has been set up at the 2010 Expo, in the middle of a very satisfying food court arrangement. It’s well worth locating if you’re visiting the 5.28 square kilometres that make up the largest ever world’s fair – you’ll need the fat, carbs and protein to get you to the other end.
In the city proper, you’ll find Nan Xiang near the Yu Yuan gardens in the Old Town God’s Temple precinct. No matter when you visit, there will be a queue. Check whether the queue you have joined is for the take-out window or for the restaurant itself, which is upstairs. As you work your way higher and higher up in the restaurant, you’ll find the offerings on the menu become more complicated, so we queued for the third floor, where crab-roe buns are the speciality. If you’re not too fussed about crab roe and just want to sample the pork buns, stop at the second floor, from which you’ll get a great view of the zig-zag Jiuqu bridge.
There are photographs of the dishes on the wall you’ll be queuing alongside, which is helpful in the face of the eccentric English menu (the buns are referred to as “characteristic dessert” – they’re characteristic, but they’re sure as hell not dessert). We ended up with a big steamer full of the traditional pork buns, some crab roe, vegetable and tofu parcels deep-fried to a marvellous lightness (the menu calls these spring rolls), and a plate of superb baked rice-flour and sesame buns filled with cashew nut and garlic chives, all flavoured with a rich sauce. Someone at an adjacent table was wrestling with a giant, fist-sized bun full of crab roe and pork with a straw sticking out of the top to suck the soup out with, which convenience left him howling as it precision-poached his soft palate. Exercise caution with hot substances and straws.
You’ll find yourself paying RMB 15 (about £1.50) per bamboo steamer. Plus the air fare, of course. If you’re in London and find you simply can’t manage without a plate of xiao long bao, head for Leong’s Legends in Chinatown’s Macclesfield St – they’re no Nan Xiang, but they make the best I’ve found yet in the UK.