In Shanghai there are street stalls selling delicious xiaolongbao, or steamed pork dumplings, on almost every corner. Here's a guide on where to find the best – and how to master the tricky art of slurping them down


Shanghainese soup dumplings

Pick up steam … Shanghainese soup dumplings. Photographs: UnTour Shanghai

渐渐加热.... 上海小笼包。图片选自:UnTour Shanghai

We all have our favourite joints and the truth about which one reigns supreme varies, depending on whether you prioritise the thickness of the skin or the quality of the soup inside. With XLBs (as those in the know call them), the dumpling isn't bobbing in a bowl of hot soup; rather, the soup is contained neatly inside the delicate dumpling skin. This is attained through a nifty trick of including cooled pork jelly (OK, fat) in with the minced pork, which is then wrapped in a thin flour dumpling skin. Good XLB joints have enough turnover that dumplings are steamed fresh throughout the day.


That said, if anyone tells you the best soup dumplings in the city can be found at Taiwanese chain restaurant Din Tai Fung, give them a polite smile and then turn on your heels and run. Sure, these XLBs may win the day in Melbourne or even San Francisco, but why come to Shanghai, the home of the xiaolongbao, to order your steamer baskets from a chain? No one suggests going to Rome and eating at Pizza Hut, however well the corporation may have localised their flavors to the Italian market.


We also avoid the historic Nanxiang tourist trap in Yu Gardens at all costs. This perennial guidebook favourite is a branch of the original dumpling shop that invented the method for preparing XLBs, but they churn out so many dumplings in a day that the product is wildly inconsistent. In addition, their widely publicised historical connection has led to interminably long lines of hungry tourists who are all searching for a suitable seat to slurp down the dumplings.


In our humble opinion, there is no single winner of the great xiaolongbao debate – and that's no because we like sitting on the fence. There are two regional varieties of soup dumpling: Nanjing-style, which are actually called tangbao, literally "soup bun," and traditional Shanghainese xiaolongbao. The latter boasts heartier wrappers that hold in a hearty pork meatball in a sweet soup, while Nanjing's offerings have skin so thin it's almost translucent, a more savoury broth, and a smaller serving of pork. In each of these categories, we have a clear winner.

以我们的愚见,在伟大的小笼包辩论会上没有一个赢家 – 这并不是因为我们毫无立场。有两个地方品种的汤包子:南京风格的,它实际上是被称为汤包,字面意思是“汤包子”,和传统的上海小笼包。后者在皮内包有丰盛的猪肉丸子甜汤,然而南京的样式包子皮肤非常得薄,几乎是透明的,更美味的肉汤和小份的猪肉。在这两个类别中,我们有了一个明确的赢家。

Fu Chun dumpling joint
Fu Chun dumpling joint


Gently take a bite out of the top (or the side) and let the steam escape. Then carefully suck out the succulent juice of the xiaolongbao. A second dip into the sauce, after you've drained the melted pork fat, wouldn't hurt. Cue the swan song and pop the xiaolongbao in your mouth whole. Savour. Repeat.


This is merely a loving ode to the standard Shanghai pork xiaolongbao. We could go into the high-class XLB filled with pork and crab roe, but we'll save that one for another day.