Many people online, in person, at the hotels and hostels around the city, will tell you that Jia Jia Tang Bao are the purveyors of the best Shanghai soup dumplings. And, if you are anything like me, you are in Shanghai in search of the famous Shanghai soup dumplings. You will, of course, have heard of Din Tai Fung. The Taiwanese chain received a Michelin star, made quick work of global expansion, and according to many, is the reason why ‘xiao long bao’ results in over 35 million hits on Google.
The xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung are petite dumplings with an incredibly thin yet impressively durable skin, housing an explosive bite of meat and gelatin, which renders and melts during steaming to create an unforgettable one bite experience. They are, undoubtably, heaven sent. They have been called one of the great culinary wonders of the world.
If you do a deep dive, you’ll find that in 1996, long before the Din Tai Fung craze went global, the legendary food critic of the New York Times, Ruth Reichl, said the xiao long bao at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown, Manhattan were “the best thing in the whole world.” For those of you yet to try xiao long bao, now might be a good time for a snack break.
But, in a culinary world obsessed with authenticity, the Jia Jia Tang Bao versus Din Tai Fung debate over soup dumpling supremacy raises a few eyebrows. First of all, there is the question of what exactly is a dumpling?
There is, certainly, no all encompassing character in Mandarin, for the simple concept. Similar to ravioli and tortellini in Italy, each regional variation of stuffing in wrapper is considered a unique specimen. There are bao, bao zi, hun tun or won ton, and jiao or gauu (think, dim sum), and the list goes on ad infinitum. All of which is to say, don’t be shocked when you find out that Jia Jia Tang Bao, does not serve xiao long bao. They only offer their eponymous namesake tang bao.
The characters for xiao long bao, 小籠包, translate to small-basket-bun. The character for tang, 湯, on the other hand (or tongue) means boiling water, or soup. So, tang bao are, literally, soup dumplings. Guan tang bao, a larger variation often served with a spoon or straw, are found all across mainland China, and are, as a matter of fact, not Shanghainese specific.
So, it is with some trepidation, and certainly a mind lost in translation, that you will first taste the slightly saccharine, yet subtly savoury soup dumplings at Jia Jia Tang Bao. After you have waited patiently in the line that forms in front of the humble shop, and ordered pork and crab tang bao, pure crab tang bao, and a side of ginger, from the woman presiding like a general at the counter, and passed by a squad of women in the open kitchen folding the dumplings to order with military precision, you will take your seat on a plastic stool, at a table that is being bussed and wiped as the last customer leaves with the smugly, drunken look of satiated post-coital bliss. You are prepared for oral nirvana.
The first bite of the pork and crab bao at Jia Jia Tang Bao will confirm what you had felt, intuitively, the moment you saw the restaurant’s unassuming facade, with rental bikes tilted against the wall, laundry hung out to dry on the balcony upstairs, and two very hungry young men in a delivery van demolishing an order each on a work break: there is no way to recreate the real thing. That it is October, and Shanghai’s famous crab comes into season right now, for a fleeting few months; that the portions are made one off, each steaming basket of a dozen dumplings folded, steamed and served before your eyes; that the restaurant closes when they run out; that the ginger is fresh and stings your palate; that the vinegar is gentle and almost palatable as a dry wine, and the pork fat and gelatin oozes out in a single mouthful of soupy delight, nearly hot enough to scald, as your teeth pierce the impossibly tender hand-rolled skin; that even now, a month later, your stomach groans impatiently at the thought of returning to Shanghai, because this morsel of food, whatever its name, is dancing with perfection. Jia Jia Tang Bao are inimitable. If you don’t believe me, you’ll have to try one for yourself, but hurry to Shanghai because they say a good thing never lasts.