If I was looking forward to one food item more than any other during my trip to China, it was the dumpling. To be specific, the soup dumpling, but really I was on the lookout for any dumpling.
Two and a half weeks into my trip, it was looking pretty dire. I knew that Shanghai was where I was bound to find the best dumpling, but I was rather shocked with how few I came across throughout the rest of the country.
Sure, there was the odd pork and chive filled variety, but it wasn't anything special. They were good, sure, but I just knew there were better dumplings to be had. And then, there was Shanghai.
On our first day in Shanghai, we made sure to stop off at Nan Xiang, a restaurant in the middle of the exceedingly touristy Yuyuan Gardens. There is also a window, on the first floor of the restaurant (the restaurant proper starts on the 2nd floor) selling nothing but the soup dumplings. Just follow the ever-present line snaking across the bazaar to the source of the deliciousness in the form of xiao long bao.
Each tightly wrapped bundle is an adventure. There is an art to eating these, such that you don't burn the shit out of your tongue while making sure not to let a drop of thIe unbelievably delicious soup escape your mouth. First, you must bite the dumpling and suck out the soup, making sure to blow on it a bit so that you can actually taste what you're about to eat. Then just cram the dumpling into your mouth, and enjoy the unbelievable combination of fresh dumpling skin and fatty, fatty pork. Eating these with a spoon is undoubtedly easier, since you don't have to worry about the little suckers slipping out from between your chopsticks as you attempt to savor these little treats.
They come 16 to an order, for 12 yuan, or about $1.75. Half of this was enough to make a meal for me, since the inside is full of rich pork and unctuous soup.
The next dumplings I sampled came from - me! I attended a couple of cooking classes while I was in Shanghai: a wet market tour and wok class and a dim sum class. I'll report back later on the wok class, but for now I'm all about dumplings. We made xiao long bao from scratch (well, almost, the "pork jelly" was already prepared, and is essentially a mixture made of pork skin that melts down as the dumplings steam and provides the soup for the soup dumplings), mixing, kneading, filling, twisting and steaming our way to dumpling perfection (I wish).
Watching the dumplings being made at Nan Xiang, I was impressed with how quickly they were folded. Pleats and crimps made effortlessly, without even looking. Once I tried making these little buggers on my own, though, my level of admiration for the dumpling-makers of the world skyrocketed. We spent a solid 45 minutes just making practice dumplings, with the instructor walking around, telling us we were doing it incorrectly, and graciously repeating her instructions and leading our hands in order to familiarize us with the excessively tedious process of crimping.
At first, I was terrible. I mean really, how pathetic is that dumpling? I appeared to have no chance whatsoever to be an expert dumpling maker. And I'm not exaggerating, I was awful. Once I got the hang of it, though, after many, many, maaaaany failed attempts, I was on a roll. In fact, the instructor said that I made the nicest dumplings of the group at the end (and she didn't even say it to me! so it had to be true! Right? Right!)
But seriously, look at these beauties. They were the result of my persistence, determination and extreme stubbornness. And they were delicious.
I have the recipe stashed away somewhere, but my room is still in the transitional period (read: there's a lot of shit I still have to unpack), and will get that down here as soon as it's unearthed, but what I can tell you is that the dough was made with nothing more than flour and water, while the inside is a mixture of pork, pork jelly, ginger, garlic, green onion, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and a bit of water. At least I think that's what's in it. In any event, when you're working with a base of pork and something called "pork jelly," can you really ever go wrong?*
*Hint: the answer is no.
The final dumpling I'm going to share is perhaps the ultimate, the daddy of all dumplings: the shengjian bao. It is a force to be reckoned with, and it is one of the (surprisingly many) foods from my trip that I find myself really and truly craving.
Behold the fried soup dumpling:
This gem came to me from Yang's Fry Dumpling. They're larger than xiao long bao, and a totally different monster. The skin is thicker, the inside fuller, and they soup tastier and more plentiful than their little cousins. And - they're fried, which is really the kicker. Instead of getting the steam treatment like the xiao long bao, the shengjian bao are fried in a giant cast iron pan so that the bottoms get a crunchy, crackly, unbelievably delicious texture. The pan is closed so that the dumpling steams while it fries, allowing the meal to cook and creating a contrast in the texture between the top of the bun and the bottom. A light coating of sesame seeds, some green onions for good measure, a quick dip in some vinegar and you have yourself a pocket of pure perfection, ready to burst at the seams with pure tastiness.
There is so much soup in these things that you really must be careful when biting into them, for the soup is not too shy to burst out and greet your adorable yellow shirt with its greasy embrace.* With a well-placed bite, the golden shell will part just enough to allow you to slurp all of the soup out, and then unashamedly devour the rest, perhaps even without taking a breath. These things are incredible and ridiculously cheap at 4 yuan for 4 crazy good dumplings (less than 60 cents). And I would like one now...
* RIP adorable yellow shirt. Rest assured that you were sacrificed for an exceedingly worthy cause.
Nanxiang Mantou Dian
85 Yuyuan Lu
Yang's Fry Dumpling
54 Wujiang Lu
Chinese Cooking Workshop
No 35, Lane 865 Yu Yuan Road