Tracking down the xiaolongbao – little balls of ground meat, exquisitely wrapped up in semi-translucent dough skin, bobbing in savory broth – is a lip-smacking adventure. Known as soup dumplings in English, you can find every version of these all over Asia – notably at Taiwanese chain restaurant Din Tai Fung. However, their motherland is China.
My dumpling-tasting journey starts in coastal Shanghai, China’s biggest city, where traditional lilong residences (townhouses connected by a lane) and modern skyscrapers compete for space. Michelin-star restaurants and shabby stalls sit side by side in the alleyways which weave in and out of the flourishing cityscape. Do not turn your nose up at these stalls, for some harbor the dainty xiaolongbao that your heart will ache for as soon as you leave Shanghai. This city is, after all, where many think the xiaolongbao was born.
It all began with Huang Mingxian, the owner of Ri Hua Xuan restaurant in the Nanxiang district of Shanghai. He was said to have created these dumplings in the 1870s by adding aspic (double boiled chicken soup cooked with pork skin and made into a jelly) to his pork mince. This is why one bite into the dumpling fills your mouth with a rush of sweet-salty broth.
“What’s so delicious about Nanxiang’s xiaolongbao is the clear broth and gossamer skin,” says Madam Fu, a Shanghainese I spoke to. According to her, even though Shanghai now has plenty of great dumpling places, Nanxiang (the modern name for the Ri Hua Xuan restaurant) still manages to fend off its competitors.
“Plus, the dumplings are so dainty,” she adds.
It’s their petite size that seems to have won the hearts of many. The dumplings started out bigger, and were called the Nanxiang da rou baozi, meaning large meat-filled buns from Nanxiang. Huang changed them into the size we know today.
Customers flock to this restaurant which also has branches at the Chenghuang Temple and Guyi Garden.
“Shanghai’s xiaolongbao are all good,” says Madam Fu, but admits, “I still prefer the Wuxi ones, which are sweeter and have a hint of soy sauce in the taste.”
Less than an hour west from Shanghai by bullet train, Wuxi is quieter than its bustling neighbor; here, a turn into an alley might bring the surprising view of a canal, or the lush greenery of a garden.
It’s no wonder that Emperor Qianlong (1711 -1799) fell in love with xiaolongbao here. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor was given the local specialty xiaolongbao to try when he was traveling through the region, and immediately took a liking to them. The xiaolongbao of Wuxi became famous throughout China.
Tina Huang, a Changzhou native who now lives in Wuxi, disputes this story of the origins of xiaolongbao. She says that it is Changzhou – the adjacent city to Wuxi – where xiaolongbao originated, specifically in the Wanhua Teahouse, during the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1821–1850) in the Qing Dynasty. Huang says when the osmanthus flowers bloom and their scents fill the air, she knows it’s the season for crabmeat xiaolongbao.
“Changzhou dumplings are less sweet than those from Wuxi. In fact, from Changzhou to Shanghai to Wuxi, the dumplings get sweeter and sweeter!” she laughs.
“Wu Xi, formerly called Yi Qin Yuan, is my favorite haunt for xiaolongbao in Wuxi,” she adds. “It’s a hole in the wall but food is cheap and service is fast!” I make a mental note of that for next time.
In fact, all cities in the Jiangnan region seem to have their own version of xiaolongbao. Just over 100mi (176km) southwest of Shanghai and an hour on the bullet train, my dumpling adventure continues in Hangzhou, a city built around the breathtaking West Lake, famed for the tragic legend of Chinese scholar Xu Xian and Madam White Snake.
Hangzhou dumplings are heavily influenced by people from Kaifeng in Henan province, 560mi (900km) northwest of Shanghai. They are not as widely known as those from Shanghai or Wuxi, yet, when savoring them in the poetic surrounds of Hangzhou I feel like I am immersing myself in a wuxia (Chinese martial heroes) movie.
A tip from a cab driver brings me to Xin Feng Snacks, which he says is the best place to try these dumplings.
Its house special – prawn dumplings – are delicious. I share a communal table with an old couple, feeling a little inadequate as they pick up their dumplings expertly, take a tiny bite and sip the broth. As for me, I scorch my tongue as I take too big a bite, and the ball of meat plops defiantly into my bowl.
Hangzhou natives even have a chant to go with eating xiaolongbao: “pick it up gently, move it slowly, first open the ‘window’, then drink the soup”. It loosely means that you should be careful with these dumplings, as the skin is delicate and breaks easily. It’s best to nibble off the top first – open the “window” – then sip the soup inside.
I pick up my dumpling again with a few shreds of ginger, dip it into the slightly sour Chinkiang vinegar, put it on my spoon and attempt a nibble. The rich flavor of the filling – a medley of pork and prawn meat mixed in with the creamy broth – bursts forth in my mouth and lingers. The old couple at the table gives me a nod of approval, and so does my tummy.
May my dumpling adventure never end.
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