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[Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that Harbin Dumplings has closed.] Walk along just about any street in Shanghai these days, and you’ll see an ever-encroaching range of Western brands, standardized brand signage and food franchises. As in other rapidly developing countries, the battle for consumer dollars and brand loyalty has meant more chains and mass-produced food.

That’s partly what makes stepping into one of the several Liu Family Harbin Dumplings shops a breath of fresh air. Every morning until the lunch rush, the dining room and back rooms are set up with trays and workers dexterously making every dumpling from start to finish. Dumpling wrappers are meticulously hand-rolled, the fillings are mixed in large batches, and the time-consuming process of filling and closing the dumplings marches on until tray upon tray is ready for boiling – but not until they’re ordered during the lunch rush.

The Jianguo Lu location is nestled next to a Gll Wonton – a chain of dumpling shops with thousands of branches across the country that receive their goods from a central kitchen by frozen delivery each day. With an item as simple as boiled dumplings, the extra effort of hand mixing and freshly rolling every dumpling wrapper makes a notable difference in attaining the proper texture and flavor for the classic dish.

Liu Family Harbin Dumplings, photo by UnTour ShanghaiWhile you’re waiting for your order to cook, start out with an order of cold bamboo tofu salad (拌腐竹, bàn fǔzhú). Drizzled with sesame oil and mixed with cucumber and carrot, the curd-like texture of this type of tofu makes for a tasty snack while you wait for your dumplings to finish boiling. There’s no actual relation to bamboo here – the reference comes from the appearance of the bunched tofu. A byproduct of soy milk, the protein forms a “skin” on the surface of the milk and is skimmed off, tied into bunches and dehydrated until ready to be cooked. After the dried tofu skin reconstitutes in hot water, it has a firm, pliant texture with the power to woo new tofu converts when served in salad at Liu Family’s Dumpling House or added to stir-fried dishes.

We also love the Harbin red sausage (哈尔滨红肠, hā’ěrbīn hóng cháng). The pork sausage’s history dates to 1900, when Russian traders in northern China set up large factories. Originally a mix of beef and pork (before beef shortages during the Cultural Revolution), it’s served plain and cold and is reminiscent of a classic summer sausage.

Each order of dumplings is served by the liang (150 g, or six dumplings), with a minimum order of three liang. If you are ordering a mixture of flavors, you can sometimes convince them to do two liang of each flavor to get a bigger variety. The standard pork and cabbage (白菜肉饺, báicài ròujiǎo) is always a crowd-pleaser, and we like the pork and celery (芹菜肉饺, qíncài ròujiǎo) and pork and leek (韭菜肉饺, jiǔcài ròujiǎo) as well. Vegetarians have the excellent option of leek and egg dumplings (韭菜蛋饺, jiǔcài dànjiǎo).

Liu Family Harbin Dumplings, photo by UnTour ShanghaiThere are no decorations, and the tables are communal during the busiest times at lunch – this is simple, delicious food in a humble setting. The locations also do a booming delivery service, but freshly made dumplings are best enjoyed piping hot when they are delivered direct from the chef’s boiling pot to your waiting plate.

 
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