Lost in Translation at Jia Jia Tang Bao

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.

Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Rd, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China, 200000

The 5 Best Street Foods in Shanghai

Shanghai is mainland China’s most cosmopolitan city, brimming with culinary diversity. Shanghai rests like a hungry baby, at mouth of the Yangtze River, waiting to be fed. Its culinary traditions shaped by the meeting of south and north China, Jiangsu and Zhejiang province, and the 19th century Western concessions that occupied the port city. Today, most popular Shanghai street foods are flatbreads, ‘bing’, and dumplings, ‘bao’.

1. Cong You Bing – Scallion Pancakes

These savoury scallion pancakes are found on street corners across Shanghai. A crunchy first bite and fresh green onion bite keep them simple and delicious. Unlike Western pancakes, Shanghai scallion pancakes are made from a dough wrapped around scallions, pounded flat, then fried.

2. Jian Bing – Breakfast Crepes

Showing off the influence of the French concession, Jian Bing are popular Shanghai crepes. Served at breakfast, street vendors skillfully spread the thin batter atop a hot, circular griddle, crack open an egg, then wrap up a combination of cilantro, chilis, hoisin sauce, and a crunchy deep-fried wonton cracker to add texture to each bite. These are a personal fave, the Shanghai equivalent of a California burrito.

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3. Sheng Jian Bao – Pan-fried Pork Dumplings

Less well known than Shanghai ‘xiao long bao’ soup dumplings, the heartier sheng jian bao, have all the juicy gelatinous burst of Shanghai’s most famous soup dumplings, plus an incredible caramelized bottom created by pan frying their breadier dough. They used to be served in the mornings outside factories, and workers bought these hearty dumplings because they would last until lunch.  Today, they are ubiquitous on Shanghai’s streets, and you’ll see people chomping into sheng jian bao from Shanghai’s street food vendors, fast food chains and Michelin recommended restaurants.

4. Da Bing – Big Flatbread

Da bing, literally big flatbread, is one of the big four traditional breakfasts in Shanghai, Suzhou and Jiangsu province, along with warm soy milk and fried pastries. Da bing is perhaps the simplest Shanghai street food; it’s a large flatbread topped with sesame, seasoned with sugar, scallion of spices to produce sweet and savoury variations. It is cut to order, and often weighed on a scale. Simply tell the vendor how much you want to pay and your slice is portioned accordingly.

5. Xiao Long Bao – Shanghai Soup Dumplings

The golden child of Shanghai street food xiao long bao soup dumplings are world famous for the thin skin and explosively juicy filling. You’re just as likely to find them in a chain restaurant, or at home in Los Angeles or Toronto, as you are on a street corner in Shanghai. But no street food tour of Shanghai would be complete without a taste of the native xiao long bao. If you can, try the subtle crab version dipped in vinegar at Jia Jia Tang Bao. The mom and pop joint only does one thing, xiao long bao, but their tender rendition of the Shanghai soup dumplings are as close to perfection as I can bare.

Prints of all the illustrations on this website are available for purchase, please use the Contact page form to contact me directly for pricing, sizing and shipping information.