Eating might be one of my greatest loves—new food, home food, strange food (I recently ate a termite in Belize)—I’ll take it all. Happily. But eating local food, to me, is the truest way to a country’s soul.
It’s a chance to taste their history, their traditions, their native sustenance, their culture.
In China, what did it for me was the dumplings.
Xiaolongbao, as they are better known, are technically mini steamed buns, but most of us know them as soup dumplings (though some would argue that’s a misnomer, but I just wanted to eat them, not get all technical). They get their name from the xialong bamboo steaming baskets they’re made in.
In Shanghai, the place to get them is Din Tai Fung. It’s a chain, but it’s a chain whose Hong Kong spot got a Michelin Star. As in, a Michelin Star.
Before you settle in to stuff yourself silly with the goodness, you can watch the xiaolongbao being prepped. From what I’ve overheard, Chinese girls are told by their mothers they’ll be hard pressed to marry if they can’t churn out a good dumpling, so the art of assembly isn’t taken lightly.
At Din Tai Fung, I had the standard steamed pork dumpling and was all set with menu in hand to order up the next set until I realized one order comes with 20 dumplings (fair warning). Beyond pork, there’s more pork: pork and crab, pork and truffle, but there are options like squash and shrimp, too.
So once you’ve got your order, it’s time to eat. And there’s an art to it.
You’ll have a plate, a spoon, chopsticks and your dumplings. You have to pick up the soup-filled, steaming dumpling ever-so-delicately with the chopsticks (and if you don’t know how to use chopsticks, learn before you leave home). Then, if you can get it off the wax paper in the bamboo basket without breaking it and place it on your spoon, you get one point for skills. Now it’s time to bite. If you bite at the top, you create an opening that’s too big, and likely an impending soup spill. You have to bite it at the side, a small bite so you can slurp out the soup, then safely chew the rest. If you can get through all that without soup plummeting to your plate below, you get two points for mad skills.
Needless to say, eating soup dumplings in Shanghai is an experience. Go forth and try it. And in the meantime, here’s a look at the masters doing their mastery.