There’s nothing I love more on a quick visit to a city than trying to discover the local culture through food. With under 24 hours in Shanghai that means searching for the best soup dumplings I could find. While Xiao Long Bao (XLB) may be the better known version of such globally, the Sheng Jian Bao (SJB) version is a Shanghai specialty and, to me, a much better way to enjoy the soup dumpling genre. Perhaps the best news is that one block in Shanghai offers great examples of both, allowing you to choose for yourself which is best.
Jie Jie Tang Bao Dumplings (上海 佳家湯包)
There are few places I am willing to wait in line for food. With two visits now under my belt this appears to be one of them. Jie Jie (or Jia Jia) Tang Bao is a tiny shop (that manages to cram 30-40 guests in at communal tables, serving up a limited selection of XLB based on what they’re cooking that day.
Typically the options are pork, pork & crab mix or all crab meat, though expect that any one might be out when you visit. The staff doesn’t speak much English (there is a single English menu to order from) and that can be troublesome, though in my case it proved a great experience.
After ordering you are ushered to a table, usually with strangers unless you have 6+ in your group. Squeeze in on a low stool and await the arrival of your steamed basket of delicious. Or, in my case, just wait. And wait. And wait. The staff will call out order numbers (apparently written on the receipt) but if you don’t understand what they’re saying it is hard to know when your XLB show up from the kitchen.
I clearly missed the call for my order and, being tucked back in the corner with no language skills other than a weak version of thank you, was not able to figure out what was going on or how to get my food. Fortunately the older couple sitting across from me realized something was wrong.
They had arrived after me and were halfway done with their meal as I just sat there. The gentleman spoke just enough English to ask for my receipt. I showed it to him and he shouted something across the room. Very soon thereafter my bamboo basket arrived with a dozen delectable (and ridiculously hot) pouches of crab + pork soup dumpling goodness. I offered my thanks several times and we managed a slightly stilted conversation about where I was from and why I was in town. That half of the overall experience was better than the dumplings but only because it was one of those amazing travel moments. The dumplings are worth they hype and even worth standing in line for 30 minutes.
On my second visit I still didn’t understand what was being called out but knew to have the receipt handy and to show it to the staff walking by from time to time; we didn’t wait nearly as long as we weren’t forgotten that time.
Yang’s Fried Dumplings (小杨生煎馆黄河路店)
I’ve had plenty of fried dumplings over the years. None of them are remotely close to what comes when ordering the “fried dumpling” known as Sheng Jian Bao (SJB). The dough is slightly thicker and the broth sweeter (at least the way Yang’s makes them). And because of the unique cooking style the SJB dumplings come out with a crispy bottom and doughy/chewy top. It is an amazing combination.
The cooking process for the SJB is also slightly different. The dough is rolled out, stuffed with filling and the soup gelatin and then formed into the purses (larger than the XLB, too) but the actual cooking is different. Rather than individual orders loaded into the bamboo baskets the SJB fill massive round metal baking sheets.
The bottom of the cooking tray gets the necessary liquid added for the frying/steaming combination and then it is covered with a heavy wooden lid. The chefs rotate the pan on the fire to ensure even cooking while occasionally shifting the SJB between burners or topping off the liquid.
At the end of the process eighty or so dumplings are ready to serve. Arguably the individual basket made-to-order version is a more fresh, more personalized way to prepare the meal. But I’ve waited for a fresh batch to finish all three times I’ve eaten at Yang’s so they’re doing enough volume where that’s not an issue.
Much like at Jie Jie you place an order and pay at the front of the store. There are three options for dumplings – pork, shrimp and veggie – being cooked up in the front window. A second line outside gets you to that service window where presenting the receipt gets you the dumplings you ordered, either packed to go or on a plate to take inside. If you cannot decide which type of dumpling you want there are combo platters available. My go-to option is two of each. Plenty of food and silly cheap.
Yang’s also has other dining options, like noodle soups available. The menu is in English and the staff speaks English, too.
Dumpling sampler perfection
To fully experience the dumplings of Shanghai I recommend an order from each location. That’s a serious commitment – bring a friend or a hearty appetite – but completely worthwhile. Typically I go to Jie Jie first and then across the street to Yang’s. That’s based on the longer line at Jie Jie and also because I like Yang’s a little better so I prefer to finish on a high note. But if your stomach is grumbling and the line is long there is another option. Run over to Yang’s and get an order to go. Then go back in line at Jia Jia and make everyone around you jealous while you nosh on some SJB and avoid the hangry pangs. I’m pretty sure you’ll still have room for the XLB once you’re inside.
More from this trip:
- Taking the COMAC ARJ21-700 for a ride
- Riding the Shanghai Maglev (and saving some cash, too!)
- Shanghai Soup Dumpling Throwdown: XLB v SJB!
- Beating the breakfast boondoggle in United’s Polaris
- Playing with Pandas: A day at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
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