How to eat xiao long bao, the Shanghai food you can’t live without

A Shanghai classic, the xiao long bao is probably the city’s most popular citizen. These mouth-watering steamed buns, a.k.a soup dumplings, look just like your normal dimsum, but they’re not. They are like wontons with a kick – a Bruce Lee kind of kick.

.Text & Photos by Jennifer Ellson | Additional photo by Greg Torres

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These little superstars pack a lot of goodness, cleverly hiding the juicy, flavorful and meaty broth inside the dumpling. From the outside, they look just like your normal dimsum, but they’re not. They are like wontons with a kick – a Bruce Lee kind of kick.

And if you’re not careful, you would literally scream and kick! The soup inside is scalding hot and I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen novice xiao long bao eaters burn their mouths and tongues by shoveling the whole thing down their throats! Yes, my friends, this Shanghai native is fierce! You’ve been warned.

Here’s the ultimate trick to savouring these little beauties:

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Put the xiao long bao in one of those Chinese soup spoons and gently puncture the dumpling wrapper first on top to let out the steam. I personally puncture it with my nice set of teeth, but I’ve seen others do it with their chopsticks, just be careful not to spill the goodness that is the soup. When it’s cool enough, slurp the soup slowly before chewing the whole thing.

Other pointers:

– Don’t be a brute. Be gentle. A torn xiao long bao skin is a wasted xiao long bao. I repeat: the goodness is in the broth inside the bun, so don’t waste it. Pick the dumplings with your chopsticks from the tip of the delicately pinched wrapper. The top part is harder than the rest of the dumpling and is not likely to break, unless you really suck at using chopsticks, in which case I can’t really help you. Sorry.

– Don’t try to dip it in the shredded ginger and black vinegar sauce, like you would dip a maki to the wasabi and soy sauce combination. Unless you’re a chopsticks pro (a real one, not a wannabe like myself), doing this will likely result to a broken dumpling and wasted soup. Instead, put as much ginger and vinegar as you like on the spoon, then place the xiao long bao, and then slurp the whole thing. Do it loud, it’s more fun.

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A bigger soup bun, with a straw!

Xiao long bao is eaten as a snack, or an appetizer. It is the best prelude to other great Shanghai fare. As a side note, Shanghainese cuisine is epitomized by the use of alcohol. Fish, crab or chicken, you name it, they are ‘drunken’ with pijiu (beer), baijiu (a distilled liquor that has some 60% alcohol content! I know, right?!), or other spirits before being cooked. Due to Shanghai’s geographical location among the rivers, lakes, and canals, seafood is a favorite and its most notable local delicacy is the hairy crab. Yes, it is really hairy, drunken, and highly recommended. So start with xiao long bao, end with hairy crab and I guarantee a hair-rising gastronomical experience.

*Xiao long bao is not really a dumpling, as it is a bun. ‘Xiao long’ literally means ‘small steaming basket’ and ‘bao’ means ‘bun’. Buns are different from dumplings in their texture and method of production. 

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  1. Jen Reply

    Oh! So this is the famous Xiaolongbao?! Looks yummy and I must say that I believe you when you mentioned it’s mouth-watering! I really have to try this, thanks a lot for the warning! :-)

    • You’re welcome :)

      And it should really be on your must-try list. Go to the nearest dimsum place and order. Order lots! :p

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  3. Yum Canlas Reply

    WOW! I love xiaolongbao! Reading this makes me crave for it! And I’ve learned something today…. how to eat it without the dumpling wrapper being punctured by my chopsticks…. thanks for the tip!

    • I’m happy to know I’ve helped another xiaolongbao-lover! There is a good and cheap xiaolongbao stall at a hawker in Chinatown – ask Joey for details.