CHINA: A Dumpling by Any Other Name

CHINA: A Dumpling by Any Other Name

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GUEST POST: My sister BJ describes her three favorite types of dumplings from her adopted hometown of Shanghai.

When I saw that “dumplings” was on the list of National Dishes of China that the Traveleaters invited readers to write about, I thought to myself, “Bu hui, a!” (No way!). Because lumping this polymorphous staple of Chinese cuisine into one generic term is much like saying your favorite hue is “color” — there are literally endless variations and it would be impossible for one single description to embody all the different types that exist in the multiple regions of the Middle Kingdom.

So I will focus instead on three types of dumplings that I have grown to love in my adopted hometown, Shanghai.

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Xiao long bao


1. Xiaolongbao

First up is the xiaolongbao or Shanghai Soupy Dumpling, which is probably the kind that most people associate with Shanghai. It is steamed dumpling made with paper-thin doughy skin wrapped around a filling of pork (often combined with crab meat) and steaming hot soup.

A xiaolongbao is one of those one-bite-wonders, and the broth inside has scalded the mouths of many uninitiated tourists (Anthony Bourdain famously among them). To eat a xiaolongbao properly, you must:

  1. Pick up the dumpling and gently dip in the shredded ginger and vinegar sauce that usually comes with it.
  2. Place the dumpling on a spoon.
  3. Make a small hole on the dumpling with your chopstick and watch the soup ooze onto the spoon.
  4. Slurp the broth inside the xiaolongbao.
  5. Then finally, take a bite without fear of causing hot soup to spurt out onto your shirt (or, more likely, your neighbor’s).

Where to get good xiaolongbao? Fortunately, you may not even have to fly to Shanghai just to get a taste. Din Tai Fung makes probably the best xiaolongbao in the world, and they have outlets in at least 15 countries, from China and the Philippines to the U.S. to the Middle East (and how they manage to keep the dough so consistently thin and delicate in every single restaurant outlet is a mystery).

NATIONAL DISH QUEST:  Chinese dumplings

2. Shengjianbao

Much lesser-known but equally foodie-worthy is shengjianbao, or Pan-Fried Soup Dumplings. Like xiaolongbao, shengjianbao is essentially soupy pork wrapped in steamed dough. But the latter’s dough is much thicker than that of the classic steamed soup dumpling, and it is pan-fried before it is steamed. The shengjianbao thus gives an added crunchiness from its seared, golden brown bottom.

Shengjianbao can be found in most Shanghai restaurants, but my Go To place is local favorite Polo (a deceptive transliteration of the restaurant’s Chinese name that obscures its hole-in-the-wall charms), which is located on Fumin Road near the corner of Changle Road.

NATIONAL DISH QUEST:  Chinese dumplings

3. Zongzi

Finally, if you are planning to come to Shanghai, consider timing your visit with the annual Dragon Boat Festival, held in May or June (more precisely, on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar). Because this is when Shanghai is awash with a dumpling that I looooove: zongzi, referred to by language-challenged non-natives as Chinese Sticky Rice Tamale.

Zongzi is a dumpling made of glutinous rice filled with either sweet or savory ingredients, wrapped in bamboo leaf in the shape of a pyramid before it is steamed. Typical fillings are sweet red bean paste or savory salted egg yolk and fatty pork (my favorite).

During the Dragon Boat festival, Shanghai grannies may be found selling their home-made zongzi on the streets. I get my zongzi fix from my colleague Vanessa, who makes awesome zongzi for everyone in the office but reserves a large stash just for me because she knows I can’t get enough of them. Sorry, this one I ain’t sharing.


Insides – ZongZi from Raymond’s Mum – yellowish whitebalance” by Alpha, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Toni Broome at 12:32 pm

    Ah it’s true it’s a broad class but I’ve yet to meet a dumpling I don’t love 🙂

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