Jiajia Tangbao on Huanghe Lu, Shanghai

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It’s a sore point for many Shanghainese when it comes to Din Tai Fung having the best xiaolongbao in Shanghai. Many of them will tell you that Din Tai Fung is not the best in Shanghai because it’s very expensive.

And after waiting for you to recover from laughing at that bit of parochialism, you are then told to try the best xiaolongbao which is served by Jiajia Tangbao.

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The most striking thing that greets you as you storm through the doors looking for empty seats (after queuing for what seems to be 8 years), is the group of ladies rolling the nuggets of tangbao. Tangbao is made to order.

In all the world there are only two really great cuisines: the Chinese and the French. China’s…is the most complicated cuisine; it uses ingredients no other employs; and it is distinctive in that, for the most part, it is cuisine à la minute.” – James Beard, 1973 [Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking]

So people who complain about the wait for the xiaolongbao would probably do better to return to their fast food haunts.

Chicken an Duck's Blood Cubes in Egg Strand Soup

Oh yes, I’m not joking about the storming part. While the queue to enter is orderly, the seating plan is based on the principle of acquiris quodcumque rapis, i.e. you get what you grab. There were tourists fresh from the airport are seated here with their freaking luggage.

One thing that rocked my breakfast was the Chicken and Duck’s Blood cubes in Egg Strand soup. This has been banned (so I’m told) in Singapore because of the Avian Flu scare, so I was on the lookout for it ever since I landed in Shanghai. Served in a hot, slightly vinegary soup, the sweet blood had a beautifully gelatinous texture like the softest tofu. I want some more!

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And the tangbao? Well, while we ordered a shitload of the steamers, we decided to keep it simple; just the standard pork tangbao and the most expensive (in the menu) the crab (with roe) tangbao.

If you hold up the Din Tai Fung Tangbao by a corner in strong sunlight, it really is translucent, so that’s a high benchmark. The Jiajia tangbao’s skin was thicker than the Din Tai Fung version, but only by a small margin. Small quibble but that’s what separates the merely good from the truly great.

Meat-wise, the Jiajia tangbao was coarse-tasting, more rillette than pate if you get my drift, but it was delicious if you love in-your-face porkiness. The soup was rustic and earthy. Truly a meal in a dumpling.

We didn’t like the crab roe tangbao because it was very coarse and somehow it wasn’t as sweet as we’d expect from crab meat, especially with roe and the soup tasted unpleasant, like stale water. Which is a pity since it’s the most expensive item on the menu.

And if you’re not stuffed after Jiajia Tangbao, you can simply cross over to Yang’s Deep-fried Dumpling for the tangbao’s evil deep-friend twin. Yang’s is considered one of the best, street-food-wise.

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With the calm of a queue broken by an energetic, almost frenetic rush for seats followed by a contemplative moment as a cloud of steam reveals pristine white mounds upon a dark bamboo mat, breaking fast at Jiajia Tangbao was an unforgettable experience.

Jiajia Tangbao is at 90 Huanghe Lu, by Fengyang Lu Opens: 6:30am-afternoon. Tel: 021-63276878

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The Competitor

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Posted on 10th Mar 2010 in Food and Drink, Shanghainese

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