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Shanghai´s food variety is huge and its restaurant density enormous. You can literally get any kind of delight you can think of. But what actually makes exploring Shanghai´s culinary scene so special is discovering its streetfood landscape – as dumplings are China´s essential comfort food, which can be found on every corner of the city. It´s served by street vendors out of small food stalls, packed in mini plastic bags and eaten on-the-go as well as in fancy restaurants, where different dumpling variations are served as part of traditional Cantonese Dim Sum culture (small bite-sized portions served in steamer baskets). The size, shape, fillings, regional influences and methods of preparation create a huge variety of fried, steamed and boiled dumplings, which most visitors firstly have no idea of. To find out about the differences, taste Shanghai´s famous specialites and learn how dumplings are made, I went on a food tour through Shanghai and explored China´s diverse dumpling scene.
The origin of the crescent dumplings is in the North of China, looking back to an almost 3.000 year old history: It´s been said that the famous doctor Bian Que invented them as he tried to save people from freezing to death throughout the ice-cold winter months of Northern China. He gave them herbs, which he wrapped into a small pasta dough to make them easier to cook and eat. By that ‚trick‘ the Chinese dumpling jiaozi was born and got modified and perfected by Chinese generals, doctors and entrepreneurs over the millennia. Even if today most people dont´t have to be afraid of freezing to death anymore, the traditional dumplings are eaten all over the country. It became China´s comfort food, which is not only served during the cold winter months, for family festivals or national holidays, but all year long.
#1 Jiaozi: The original and still the classic of China´s dumpling culture
After 3.000 years of dumpling history the boiled jiaozi is still the classic among all the steamed, fried and boiled Chinese dumplings. Typically filled with pork and Chinese cabbage, it´s been dipped into a sauce of rice vinegar and ginger – as well as chili oil, for thoese who like it spicy. You can find jiaozi at nearly every corner in China and there is absolutely nothing you can go wrong with.
tasted at a small seated restaurant: Qin Chuan Lao Wan together with sour plum juice
address: 255 Zhaojiabang Road / near Shaanxi Road South
#2 Shengjianbao: The Shanghainese breakfast speciality
Fried at the bottom, filled with broth and topped with black sesame, Shengjianbao is one of the typical Shanghainese breakfast specialities. The dough, which surrounds the pork- or shrimp meatball is thicker and tighter compared to the classic dumpling. Also the shape and size differs from the jiaozi, which can push you to the limits of eating with chopsticks. The most challenging part is to manage that the hot broth doesn´t splash into all directions, when you bite into it.
The reason why the partly fried dumpling can hardly be found outside of Shanghai is the fact that it´s not typical Chinese. As oil was expensive in the China of former days, there was no reason to waste it by frying dumplings. In the fast growing metropolis Shanghai, that was highly influenced from outside, Shengjianbao had the chance to become popular during the early 1900. Even today Shengjianbao is not a breakfast snack you would prepare at home on a regular basis because the making is odorous and associated with effort. And there are enough street stalls selling it, at least in the streets of Shanghai.
#3 Wontons: The Jiaozi of the South
The shape of the soup dumplings wontons is similar to the Italian tortellini. As jiaozi wontons are mostly filled with meat or shrimp. But the making differs: The wonton dough wrapper is squared, while jiaozi´s fillings are wrapped in a round piece of dough. Furthermore wontons are being cooked in a light broth or soup, in which they commonly will also be served in the end. While jiaozi is a dish more popular in Northern China, wontons get served more often in the Southern parts of the country, where they are known as wantans (Cantonese writing).
#4 Tangyuan: The sweet finish – not only during Chinese Holidays
The small glutinous rice balls, filled with a paste of black sesame or red beans is a popular dessert, which is eaten especially on the 15th day of Chinese New Year Festival. Not only, but especially then this small variation of sweet dumpling can be found on every corner allover the country.
tasted #2 #3 & #4 at the seated restaurant Dong Tai Xiang
address: 309 Shaanxi Road South / near Jianguo Road West
#5 Guotie/ Potstickers: crispy on the outside, chewy inside
Guotie, or potstickers are actually nothing more than wok-fried jiaozi, but delicious as hell. The cooked jiaozi will be shallow-fried in a covered flat pan or wok by adding a little bit of water. Thereby their bottom gets a golden-brown crisp, while the upper side is only being steamed, which makes it a typical Chinese dish. This dumpling variation is quite similar to the Japanese gyoza and maybe the reason, why I like it so much. Actually this method of prepration emerged, because it was impossible to cook jiaozi more than once, as the dough would fall apart. With this variation the leftovers can be warmed-up again.
tasted at Huji Guotie stand
Address: Taiyuan Road / near Jianguo Road West
#6 Xiaolongbao: Shanghai´s most famous dish & my undisputed favourite dumpling of all time
Translating Xiaolingbao makes it crystal-clear what the Shanghai region’s most famous dish is all about: Small steamed dumplings, served in a (bamboo) basket.
Xiao = small; long = (bamboo) basket; bao describes the shape of round dumplings
What makes these kind of dumplings so special must be the fact that you will find the authentic ones only in Shanghai and the adjacent Jiangsu province – this also being the area where they have originally been invented. The small town of Nanxiang, actually a suburb of Shanghai, is the birthplace of these small steamed delicacies. Before Xiaolongbao made their way to Shanghai, this kind of dumpling was only sold in a small shop close to Guyi Park. Today the Restaurant Nanxiang Mantou Dian, which developed there and Nanxian Steamed Bun Restaurant in Shanghai´s Yu Garden are supposed to sell the only truly authentic Xiaolongbao, if you ask the local Chinese. This actually explains the long queues there every single day. To what extend the Xiaolongbao sold there inferior with other restaurants I still need to find out myself, as so far I have never had the patience to line up in the sheer endless seeming queue.
At this point I think it´s also time to lift the secret how the broth actually gets inside the dumpling. Kind of easy once you knonw the magic behind: They use a solid piece of meat aspic, which gets added to the filling and then start melting once being steamed in the basket – and et voila: there you go with your juicy and mouth-watering broth. But better be careful as you can easily burn your lips and tongue with this usually very hot broth. So the recommended way of eating xiaolongbao would be as follows: Lift the dumpling gently out of the basket with the help of your chopsticks and place it on your spoon. Bite a small hole into the dough and blow carefully. Then soak the broth out and eat the xiaolongbao directly after. Piece of cake actually! 😉
#7 Shao Mai: Open-faced rice dumplings from Inner Mongolia
Shao Mai is a traditional Chinese dry dumpling from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. For the original one there is only one filling: chopped or minced mutton, scallion and ginger. But as China is a huge country, in the meantime fillings differ a lot in different regions. So you can find the Cantonese style Shao Mai filled with pork and mushrooms. It can be steamed or fried. In Hohhot it´s staple food especially eaten for breakfast, while the Cantonese version is served as dim sum. Shao Mai can also be found outside China, e.g. in Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines or Vietnam.
tasted #6, #7 & #8 at Lao Hongxing
address: 236 Taiyuan Road / near Jianguo Road West
#8 Baozi: Role-like steamed bun – savory or sweet
Boazi is another on-the-go breakfast snack, which is often eaten straight ahead before even reaching the office. Generally Baozi are considered a steamed bun made of wheat dough, which makes it look and taste bread- or role-like. It can be filled hearty or sweet. Pork meat, mushrooms, tofu or veggie-fillings are as common as red bean paste, egg or milk custard for the sweet-toothed among you.
tasted at Baby Bread (there are countless branches across the city)
address: 380 Jianguo Road West / near Taiyuan Road
#9 Har Gow: Classic Cantonese Dim Sum, all selfmade
Nothing tastes better than the fruits of your own labor. And so do These har gow (crystal shrimp dumplings), which are actually said to be the ones to be ordererd first, if you want to find out about a restaurant´s quality and its chef´s dim sum skills. What is it that makes the har gow so special? As the name already indicates: It´s the dough, which gets transparent and smooth during steaming. The dough of our very own handmade shrimp dumplings consists of wheat and potatoe starch.
prepared and cooked at Chinese Cooking Workshop
address: 370 Wulumuqi Road South / near Jianguo Road West
For my Shanghainese foodtour I joined ‚Hands on Dumpling Delights‘ by UnTourFoodTours to find out more about the dumpling culture and diverity of Shanghai. UnTourFoodTours is a local tour operator, specialized in culinary tours since 2010. They also offer tours in Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong. In a small group of 8 people we walked around Former French Concession for 3 hours, tasting all kinds of the described dumplings above in the mentioned restaurants. You can take these as a reference to try the different dumpling specialties, but you will definitely also find them at many other food stalls around town.
I was invited to the „Hands on Dumpling Delights“ tour by OnTourFoodTour. The blogpost of course still describes my personal impression and opinion, I can definitely recommend joining a tour with OnTourFoodTour as they are diverting and informative as well as giving some insights into Shanghainese food culture.
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