Xiaolongbao may just be the world’s favorite Chinese dish ever created. Who doesn’t know it by now?? They are commonly known as soup dumplings, or my personal favorite – “dumplings with delicious juice running down your chin,” as seen on the English translation menu of many Chinese restaurants where I lived in LA.
(Actually the literal Chinese translation is “little bamboo steamer buns”, because these buns are a lot smaller than traditional Chinese steamed buns, so they are made in a much smaller steamer.)
What is it about xiaolongbao that makes it such a crowd favorite? There’s just something magical about the way the soup explodes in your mouth as soon as you bite into the thin skin. And there may be no greater harmony of flavor than dumpling, ginger, and vinegar.
Xiaolongbao was invented in Shanghai, but it didn’t become a globally recognized dish until a Taiwanese restaurant (surely you’re heard of Din Tai Fung by now, no?) popularized them. Worldwide, Din Tai Fung is considered to be the masters in the art of the xiaolongbao.
We’ve eaten at Din Tai Fung in quite a few locations: Los Angeles, Bangkok, Singapore, and yes, in Taiwan. And guess what? While the dumplings are undoubtedly good, I don’t find them to be all that. They’re impossibly delicate and beautiful, they’re juicy, and they’re… way overpriced. In my opinion, they’re not really worth the US$7 for 10 tiny dumplings.
So when we finally made it to Shanghai, we were on the search for delicious xiaolongbao at a more reasonable price. Surely, you couldn’t beat their place of origin, right? Luckily, my cousin, Jing, lives in Shanghai, so it was easy to find a local’s opinion on where to get the best ones. But unluckily, her opinion was that none of them are good. She said if we really wanted to eat the best xiaolongbao, she’ll have to take us to Wuhu.
We trusted her judgment and managed to hold off on our xiaolongbao cravings. And on our last Saturday in the city, we boarded a train and headed to Wuhu.
By the time we reached Wuhu at the end of the 3+ hour long journey, it was dinnertime, so after a quick greeting to the family, we headed out to dinner with Jing and her dad. Geng Fu Xing is located on Phoenix Gourmet Street (Mei Shi Jie), a dining hub with many restaurants specializing in local cuisine. This particular one is a piece of Wuhu history at a century old! Jing said that when a Chinese TV food show came to town to talk about Wuhu’s specialties, they featured this restaurant. So even more so, my expectations were sky high.
We arrived on the early side for dinner at around 5:30 pm and there were still plenty of tables available. But if you come in the morning, then it’s a different story. Jing said that locals will often wait over an hour to get a table here.
Before we get into the xiaolongbao, let’s take a look at the other dishes we ordered:
The shrimp roe noodles are a restaurant specialty. However, it didn’t seem that exciting to me at first. The broth was super light and I usually prefer my soup broths heavy and fiery. But after I put a little bit of Geng Fu Xing’s housemade black vinegar into the broth, it became a lot better. The thing with this is that you have to eat it fast before the noodle gets too soft.
These sesame biscuits are another Wuhu specialty with a long history. They are baked in a clay oven and the crust comes out dry and flaky. There are two different kinds on the plate. The round ones contain a pickled radish and preserved veggie filling, while the long ones contain green onion. This is one of the restaurant’s most well-known breakfast items.
These celery and pork dumplings are steamed in the bamboo steamer, as opposed to water boiled like the dumplings of the north. The dumplings come out a bit dryer this way, but not to worry – just dip them in the black vinegar!
Next came the most interesting and scariest looking dish of the evening: black stinky tofu! If you thought the Taiwanese stinky tofu looked bad, then this one is even more hardcore. The black outside is from the brine that it’s fermented in (soy sauce, tea, other secret ingredients…) and the inside remains white. I’ll say it again: it’s A LOT better than it looks (not very stinky at all, promise!). Stinky tofu is one of D’s favorite foods in the world and he especially loved this version.
And now, finally onto the xiaolongbao! We ordered two bamboo steamers of the pork soup dumplings, at only 15RMB/10pcs (or roughly US$2.50). The ones here are also about twice the size of the ones at Din Tai Fung, so that means they are like 100x the value.
Now, one of the trickiest things about xiaolongbao is how exactly to eat it. It sounds simple enough: pick it up with your chopsticks, dip in vinegar, and deliver to mouth.
But as they are filled with soup inside, you have to exhibit some level of skill in eating them. If you’re not careful, the soup may squirt out upon contact with teeth. Some menus may translate xiaolongbao as “dumplings with juice running down your chin”, but that is the last thing you want to happen! And equally as sad, you may poke a hole in the skin when picking one up with chopsticks, and thus wastefully draining the soup.
Okay so once you have successfully picked it up without tearing it and maybe even dipped it in vinegar without dropping it, it’s time to eat it! Some people will say to nibble a tiny hole at the bottom of the dumpling and suck out all the juice first before eating the skin + meat part. But I prefer to wait for the soup to cool a little and then just pop the whole thing into my mouth (as I’m not coordinated enough for the first method).
But these xiaolongbao are different and easier to eat! For they are wrapped in a way that leaves a hole at the top!
Dipping the dumpling in vinegar will make the skin slippery and harder to hold onto. But with a convenient hole at the top, you can just pour some vinegar into the dumpling! And it’s also easy to now just suck out the juice from the hole! Just be careful as the juice will be extremely hot.
And let me tell you, these soup dumplings certainly lived up to the hype! They are superbly juicy while the skin is thin with the right amount of chewiness. And I loved the larger size too.
As good as all the dishes were, it was clear that the xiaolongbao stole the show. We all agreed that it was the best we’ve ever had (and we’ve had a lot from all kinds of restaurants!). And the cost for 4 people? A very reasonable 99RMB or US$16.
With happy and full bellies, our time in Wuhu was already off to a good start. Read about the rest of our time here.