This morning my waking thought was a remembrance of Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai specialty consisting of little thin-skinned dumplings filled with both pork or seafood filling and (here's the special part) a bit of pork broth. I first fantasized "Wow! I'll bet people in the States have never had soup in their dumplings! Culinary world, I am about to blow your mind and burn your tongue." Sadly, a quick google search revealed that not only does everybody and their mom know about XLB, but they were even a little food fad in the mid-90s. So much for my dreams of real originality. Or at least the appearance of originality here in the US.
My next thought was a remembrance of actually eating XLB in Shanghai. It took some doing, but eventually I got a seat at Xia Xia Xialongbao Tang, a well-recommended XLB shop in the middle of their neighborhood home to tons of restaurants and nothing else. I remember my eager anticipation of what surely would be a transformative tasting experience, and also the clear "do-not-care" attitude of the waitress (though the old guy who brought me a spoon when she forgot to seemed pretty ok). And the dumplings? The skins were substantial enough to taste, but not at all unpleasantly thick, and they had the tender texture you generally look for. The solid filling (I got the pork) was fine, though nothing stunning. And the crucial bit, the soup? Meh. The stock was delicious, but it felt like there was maybe half a teaspoon in each dumpling. And looking at the picture of the dumplings, I can't see why I expected any more to be stuffed into those things.
A little disappointed, I left the restaurant and started to head back to the hostel to collect my stuff and catch my train west. I was still hungry - those dumplings were expensive, for China, and one steamer basket's worth was surely not enough to satisfy me - so when I spotted someone frying more substantial-looking dumplings across the street, I leaped at the opportunity to get something more in my stomach. Nothing about Yang's Fry-Dumpling restaurant or the dumplings themselves indicated that the Shanghai soup dumpling scene was about to redeem itself in a moment that mixed a bit of euphoria with a bit of searing pain. There was a kind of ridiculous, but understated, yellow sign with poorly formatted english writing and a picture of an anonymous hand giving the thumbs up. In the window that opened onto the street, a big batch of dumplings the size of a child's fist were being shallow-fried in a huge pan. My experience with these fried dumplings was that the restaurants tilted the pan and only used enough oil to active fry things in one corner of it, so often half your dumplings were half cold. I should never have doubted Yang or his fry-dumplings. After buying a set of four, I was walking down the street towards a subway stop when I bit into the first one. I don't know what I expected, but I guess probably some kind of meat stuffing. Instead, steaming-hot (at the least) soup game gushing out, burning my tongue and splattering everywhere. It turned out there was at least like a gallon of soup in each of these things, and the whole deal was super-heated. The bottoms were awesomely crunchy, which of course left the tops a bit rubbery. There were sesame seeds and delicious grease and some kind of solid stuffing that I can't at all remember because of the soup. Oh my, the soup was everything I wanted: hot, delicious, and in quantity. I'd finished all four by the time I got down into the train station, the soup from each one burning my mouth in some new place. But I was smiling anyway.
So there you have it. Americans may think they know about Shanghai soup dumpligs, but they're eating the ones from the wrong side of the street.