Xiaolongbao, soup dumplings native to Shanghai but found throughout China, are a perfect food. Filling but not heavy, flavorful but not spicy, they possess a wonderful balance of textures. More than a snack but less than a full meal, xiaolongbao are also a treat for another reason: Unlike most things in China, they can be enjoyed in total solitude.
In Chinese, xiaolongbao means “small basket buns,” and as the name implies, they arrive at your table in round, steaming bamboo baskets. When those baskets opened, they elicit the same joy of anticipation as a Christmas present or, perhaps, a rabbit being pulled from a magician’s hat. The dumplings’ soft exterior—memorably described by Anthony Bourdain as “pillows of happiness”—encase a mixture of minced pork, shredded vegetables, and (if you must) an additional meat like crab. These items are joined by a solidified broth that, when steamed, liquefies, bathing the whole lot.
When perfectly folded, they are so beautiful that you just want to shove them in your mouth, but beware: Successful consumption of xiaolongbao requires an exquisite sense of timing. Eat one too quickly and the broth will scald your tongue and leave you panting; wait too long, though, and they’ll be overly cold. The discerning xiaolongbao aficionado knows that you must temper the soup dumplings’ heat by dipping them, ever so gently, into a tiny saucer of vinegar. This, of course, only adds to the flavor.
Handling a xiaolongbao requires a certain amount of dexterity with chopsticks that, for large, bumbling Americans like myself, does not come naturally. You may find, as I have, the contents of your beautifully crafted xiaolongbao splattered on your shirt. It is perfectly acceptable in Shanghai, by the way, to extract the broth from your xiaolongbao before eating the rest of it and to make a certain amount of noise doing it. This is half the fun of eating them.
I first encountered these delightful soup dumplings on a trip I undertook to Shanghai in 2004, six weeks or so after I moved to a nearby city to teach English. Back then, my Mandarin consisted of a single word—ting (stop)—which I would holler at taxi drivers forced to contend with my frantic-hand-gestures brand of navigational technique. I could read even less than I could speak. Without knowing the names of anything to eat, I’d stroll through restaurants and point at dishes other patrons were eating while a waitress jotted them down on a pad. On one occasion, I threw up my hands and ordered my taxi driver to take me to McDonald’s—only to realize that I didn’t know how to say that in Chinese either.
It was on that visit that I stumbled into a shabby little place down a boulevard on the Huangpu River, near the Bund, known for its fabulous Art Deco buildings. To my relief, the restaurant had gone to the trouble of photographing the items on the menu and providing a creative, if usually inaccurate, English translation. I spotted the xiaolongbao and ordered it. The waitress said something to me in Chinese that I could not understand. I smiled helplessly. She returned some minutes later with a little basket of happiness, and I dove in, slurping and spilling and devouring the dumplings like a dog going at a bowl of scraps. I’m sure I won no style points, but I didn’t care. In those days, successfully feeding myself was victory enough.
In China, most restaurants serve their food family style, often around a lazy Susan containing a carefully selected mixture of dishes. Meals are meant to be boisterous, celebratory affairs in which no amount of food is ever enough. This is a wonderful, convivial way to dine—except for those of us who, by quirk of nature or nurture, enjoy eating alone, at least on occasion. This is the beauty of xiaolongbao. In a city where the breadth of culinary offerings is greater than perhaps anywhere else on earth, there are still countless holes in the wall where you can slip in, alone, and slurp down a freshly prepared basket of soup dumplings. Even though my non-Chinese rear end barely fit on the cheap plastic stools and I could not make any sense of the Mandarin chatter around me, it was in these places that I felt most at home. Far more so than in any one of the city’s trendy establishments. All these years later, sitting in my New York apartment, I only need to close my eyes to conjure the Shanghai of my first visit and have the memory of that humble xiaolongbao come back to me.
That Shanghai—the Shanghai of 2004—doesn’t exist anymore. Nor, probably, does the Shanghai of 2014. No city on earth that I can think of has enjoyed as many births, deaths, and rebirths as China’s coastal showcase. To walk through the city, after even a brief absence, is to experience a profound feeling of disorientation, a sense that entire neighborhoods had disappeared overnight and that whatever replaced them would not last long either.
But the food remains. It is the city’s connective tissue, the one constant that unites the Shanghai of Mao with the Shanghai of now.
No food item is more essential to Shanghai than the xiaolongbao. It is a dish enjoyed by the city’s wine-sipping, Porsche-driving elites in glitzy restaurants, as well as migrant laborers from distant Guizhou province who find their fix at dingy, back alley joints. Increasingly, it can be found much farther afield too.
There are plenty of restaurants in New York City that serve the stuff, not least, the famous Joe’s Shanghai. You can find xiaolongbao in neighborhoods catering to the city’s Chinese diaspora as well as in places filled with hipster foodies looking to impress their Tinder dates. But eating xiaolongbao in Shanghai is an irreplaceable experience. It is perhaps the food that most defines what Shanghai—a city always in flux—truly is.
And yet I can hardly blame those who wish to eat xiaolongbao wherever they are. It is, as I’ve said, a perfect food item, a gift from Shanghai to the world that no amount of time can undo.