Xiaolongbao first appeared around 1875, during the Ming Dynasty, in Nanxiang, a village on the northwestern outskirts of Shanghai. As the story goes, a vendor selling dry steamed buns decided to innovate due to stiff competition. Legend also suggests, however, that he copied the giant soupier dumplings from Nanjing.
Whatever the case, there are several regional varieties of soup dumplings today, including Nanjing-style, which are actually called tāngbāo (汤包), literally meaning “soup bun,” and traditional Shanghainese xiǎolóngbāo, which have heartier wrappers that contain a larger pork meatball in a sweeter pork soup. Conversely, the giant Nanjing-style ones have skin so thin it’s almost translucent, a more savory broth and a smaller serving of pork – they often come with a straw to suck out all the soup. Here are five of our favorite spots in Shanghai for soup dumplings of all strips.
Guyi Garden Restaurant
Shanghai’s signature snack was really invented in Nanxiang, then a village on the outskirts of a growing city. Yet the megapolis has since engulfed the formerly quiet area and turned it into a suburb that’s now just a quick subway ride from downtown. If you’re serious about your xiaolongbao, take a half-day excursion here to sample the original soup dumplings at Guyi Garden Restaurant. Located in a 16th-century mansion on the edge of one of Shanghai’s most beautiful parks, this sprawling and tranquil restaurant is said to be where xiaolongbao originated. Firmly on the local tourist trail, the restaurant turns out tens of thousands of dumplings per day in a mesmerizing human assembly line.
The main varieties on offer are the original pork (鲜肉小笼 包 xiānròu xiǎolóngbāo) or crab roe & pork (蟹粉小笼包 xièfěn xiǎolóngbāo). If you’ve still got room after feasting on the original, you can walk up and down the nearby streets sampling dumplings from the dozen or so other small shops that have congregated in this area.
Since 1959, Fu Chun has been serving 本帮 (local Shanghainese) snacks at this location from 6:30 a.m. to midnight. It is one of the few places where you can eat Shanghai-style xiaolongbao (thicker wrapper, sweeter soup, fatter meatball) without paying through the nose. It was renovated in the first half of 2018 with a nostalgic eye to old Shanghai – it works, and luckily the recipe doesn’t appear to have changed along with the décor.
While you’re here, round out your meal with a fried pork cutlet (炸猪排 zhà zhūpái); Shanghai’s version of a schnitzel is a direct result of the city’s colonization. Originally a Western fusion dish brought by foreigners in the 1800s, this breaded, deep-fried cutlet is typically served with Shanghainese Worcestershire sauce (translated as “spicy soy sauce”), which was originally produced for British expats in the 1930s. Both are now quintessentially Shanghainese and a necessary component of a true local dining experience.
Nanjing Soup Dumplings
We’ve watched the kids grow up at this family-run dumpling shop in the southwest corner of the Former French Concession. While their traditional soup dumplings are great, they also offer that ever-elusive vegetarian option. Purists will argue it’s not really a xiaolongbao without the pork broth and meat, but if the substitute fits your diet and tastes good, we’re not going to argue.
You’ll have to wait a little extra for them to custom wrap the veg dumplings, but the end result is good – slightly juicy little nuggets with a shepherd’s purse filling. If you don’t speak Chinese, try showing them the characters (荠菜小笼包). You might also want to throw in an extra “I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat,” just to be on the safe side（我 吃 素不吃肉 wǒ chīsù bù chī ròu).
Lin Long Fang (麟笼坊)
This is Jia Jia Tangbao’s (arguably the most famous, now very widespread local chain) lesser-known sister store. The food is similar, but the environment is better here – after placing your order with the cashier at the door, you can watch the team of chefs rolling and stuffing dumplings by hand. The vibe is less touristy and more local as they haven’t gone so deep into the franchise model as Jia Jia Tangbao. For our money, their pork with salted duck egg yolk（蛋黄小笼包）dumpling is the best you can find in the city.
A sign out front says: “现点，现包，现蒸，现吃,” which loosely translates as, “You order them, we stuff them, we steam them, you eat them” – so there is a bit of lag time between ordering and eating, but that just ensures you get the freshest dumplings possible.
If you’ve made your way through this list of local mom-and-pop shops and institutions, it may be time for a little variety in your dumpling wrapper. Anyone living in Asia knows not to scoff at the incredible food found in malls, despite the somewhat sanitized and sometimes (very) fancy surrounds. You’ve probably heard of Taiwanese-import Din Tai Fung’s famous Michelin-starred xiaolongbao, so opt for something a bit different at Paradise Dynasty. Like DTF, Singaporean-based Paradise Dynasty also offers a wider range of innovative takes on the xiaolongbao fillings, which is nice if you’ve had enough crab roe and pork.
To accommodate such variety, they’ve dyed their wrappers in eight vibrant hues so you know what you’re eating – helpful if you’re choosing between foie gras, shrimp, ginseng, truffle, Sichuan peppercorns, chestnut and more. It sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but there’s something for just about everyone, and they’re all surprisingly tasty.
Try your hand at making your own intricate steamed dumplings on our “Hands-On Dumpling Delights” tour, and leave armed with a detailed recipe so you can recreate them when you get home.
This article was originally published on March 6, 2019.