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There is often some confusion when it comes to the many varieties of dumplings in Shanghai. The city’s most famous snack, xiǎolóngbāo, is a soup dumpling that neatly encases its broth inside a thin dumpling skin. It is not, as many first-time visitors assume, a dumpling floating in soup. For that, we turn to the humble wonton soup.

A perennial favorite across China, wontons are sold in Shanghai in small, anonymous-looking shops that dot the city’s streets in large numbers – you just need to know where the good ones are. Tucked away in a beautiful corner of Hongkou district is a tiny gem with the simplest of menus. It serves just one dish, so the only decision that needs to be made is whether to order it in small, medium and large. With a price range of RMB 3-5, these value-packed wontons end up attracting a large contingent of parents and grandparents bringing their little ones – Goldilocks-style – to munch on an appropriately sized bowl of traditional Shanghainese eats.

The shop’s name translates to “Old Shanghai Three Treasures Small Wontons,” a reference to both its historical surroundings and solitary menu item. (The middle part of the name, “three treasures,” likely refers to the three main ingredients in the dumplings or the stock, but the boss wouldn’t tell us what these were.) The interior has literally no space for diners, while there are just two tables out front, protected by a simple awning – this is forced year-round alfresco dining at its finest.

Two ayis (“aunties”) work out of a kitchen no larger than five square meters, constantly filling the tiny wontons, while two others serve up the hungry diners and boil the minced pork-filled treats. They’ve been working the same spot for 12 years now, and when we ask how many bowls they serve each day, the boss whispers “so many,” in the hushed tone of a good businesswoman not wanting her secret to get out to other entrepreneurs. Luckily, the neighborhood found out her secret long ago, and there never seems to be an empty stool.

Once you’ve found a seat – likely elbow-to-elbow with a xiao pengyou, or “young friend” – your bowl of steaming wontons arrives, ready to be personalized with your own flavoring flair from the tableside condiments. There is fiery Hunan chili sauce for spice lovers, and rice wine vinegar, salt and seasoned pepper dial up the simple broth, which is mostly punctuated by a fragrant mix of dried shrimp and tiny bits of green onions and hǎidài (海带), or kelp. The smooth wheat-flour dumpling skin is perfect for slurping, and there is just the tiniest bit of meat in this shop’s take on wonton soup – so little that it is probably the reason prices seem stuck in the past with the rest of the “old Shanghai” neighborhood that gives the shop its name.

Go with the large RMB 5 bowl if you’ve made the trek all the way here, as it’s just about enough to fill up on and may still leave you with a bit of room to keep snacking on the neighborhood’s other street food snacks. The shop sits neatly on the border of what is left of the well-preserved former Japanese concession and a traditional neighborhood of winding alleys filled to the brim with fresh fruit and veggie sellers. Facades in this neighborhood have been spruced up recently, suggesting the area may be saved from the wrecking ball for the time being. Taking time to explore below the surface and check out the traditional architecture makes for a perfect morning of wandering through what truly feels like a different era wedged in the middle of the bustling city.

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Jamie Barys

Published on October 18, 2012

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