Hungry Dan takes on Shanghai's famous Shengjian

Travel | by Dan Shapiro
Posted: August 5th, 2009 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
268 days to go until the 2010 World Expo and Haibao, that androgynous little blue wave, is close on my tail. Although he's supposedly ushering in good thoughts and vibes, welcoming foreigners to Shanghai, he's stalking my every move, muttering under his breath that I better learn the finer points of Shanghai's food culture before Expo 2010 begins, or get out. Until now I've concentrated my dining exploits on other regions of China, often bashing the local Shanghainese cuisine as tai tian de (pronounced tie tee-en duh) or too sweet, but feeling the heat from the supposedly-cool blue mascot I set off to discover Shanghai's best sheng jian (pronounced sheng jyen). Many will claim that the Yunnan Nan Lu Snack Food Street, one of Shanghai's dining capitals, to sample the local fare, determined to find the tastiest, most delicate dumplings around.

Unaware the actual boundaries of the "official" food street only extend from Huaihai Lu to Yan'an Lu, I mosey into Shu Cai Ji, a local dive peddling dumplings at #142 and order up a round of their classic treats.

The dingy eatery is dim and a bit grimy, but the tables are pretty packed which must be a good sign. I sit at a wooden stool, pour some vinegar into a small plate and dip the first ball into the sauce and then into my mouth.

As soon as I bite down however, I spit the meat-filled bun back out onto the plate, my tongue scorched from the boiling liquid inside. While I was under the impression that sheng jian were simply a pan-fried dumpling, my tongue is now inflamed from the scorching soup that rests inside the meat purse, and I'm convinced that somewhere, Haibao is laughing at my self-inflicted torture.

I turn to the right and witness an older gentleman with graying wisps of hair flowing from his chin, masterfully eating them. His technique, honed from years of experience, starts with first biting a small hole in the dumpling, then tilting his head back to slurp the hot soup, next placing the sheng jian in the vinegar and finally consuming.

Now that I've seen how it's done, I use the other three dumplings in my order to practice copying his method, all to varying degrees of success.

I must not hip to the local tastes because these meat-filled, fried-dough balls are really missing the mark. Rather than continue my search for the perfect sheng jian, I head home and phone local food expert Crystyl Mo for some advice. Crystyl is well versed in the Shanghai food sphere, writing "The Dish," a bi-weekly food column for local magazine City Weekend, and she agrees to accompany me on a brief search for some impeccable food.

The next day, Crystyl and I meet on the corner of Yunnan Nan Lu and Yan'an Lu and meander south toward Dong Tai Xiang, located at #61. While the restaurant is definitely cleaner than Shu Cai Ji, the dumplings once again leave much to be desired. Regardless, the sheng jian are far superior to yesterday's, but perhaps that's because I've finally harnessed my ability to properly eat the dumplings, even some locals noticing my prowess.

Crystyl seems to agree about Dong Tai Xiang's lackluster edibles, and she recommends continuing our walk north, past Jinling Lu to Xiao Xian Shengjian Dian at 147 Yunnan Nan Lu.

We are greeted at the door by a fresh batch of sheng jian and I'm immediately certain that these dumplings will easily surpass the previous samples. Crystal points out Xiao Xiang's special technique is to fry the dumplings upside down, which doesn't necessarily make the food any better, but does distinguish their sheng jian from the competitors.

Once at our table, I dive right in, careful not to spill any soup, systematically slurping every drop from the dumpling before placing shengjian in the vinegar. Additionally, Crystyl orders up a bowl of niu rou fensi tang (pronounced nyou-row fen-sih tahng) or beef noodle soup, which apparently is also a well-known delicacy of Xiao Xiang's.

These dumplings are definitely the best so far, but still, I'm not totally satisfied. Perhaps I'm just not meant to like every food, but Hungry Dan leaves no item untouched, and I'm determined to find the most perfect shengjian in town. Crystyl and I decide to break for the evening, but just as we're about to part, she briefly mentions a landmark spot of sorts, Xiao Yang Sheng Jian Guan on the Wujiang Lu Snack Food Street.

I head home, but rest is impossible, my brain and stomach only able to think about this infamous Xiao Yang and his delicious sheng jian. Are Xiao Yang and Haibao in cahoots to torment my empty stomach? Did I really spend two days eating sub-par dumplings only to be informed at the last minute that the most obvious destination is also the supreme temple of pan-fried goodness?

The night moves at a snail's pace. I stare at the ceiling gripping my belly with both hands preparing my stomach for a serious workout in the morning. As the sun rises, I begin to stretch, contorting myself in odd positions that maximize my capacity to consume. Perhaps I shouldn't be revealing my hungriest secrets, but the sharp cramps of hunger have disabled my tact filter and I dress for the occasion, black t-shirt and dark jeans which easily hide any spills, drips or gastronomic catastrophes.

At noon I exit Nanjing Xi Lu Metro station and walk toward Xiao Yang's for a duel with a plate of sheng jian.I arrive just in time for a fresh batch of dumplings and I proceed to the purchasing counter and order up two servings (eight dumplings in total).

The locals stare in amazement as I head upstairs and meticulously prepare my vinegar, slowly rubbing my chopsticks together eliminating any possibility of a tongue splinter.

I grasp my first delight in between the two wooden sticks, slowly bite a hole from the top, chew and then tilt my head back to let the hot broth flow down the back of my throat. Tiny bits of melted meat also race through with the soup and my first swallow is heavenly. Next I follow protocol, dipping the remainder of the sheng jian in the vinegar, then placing the ball in my mouth, slowly chewing and savoring every morsel of dough and meat that pass through the cracks in my teeth.

I hear one Shanghainese man comment on my excellent technique and I quickly recall how just two days before I was unaware of the proper method. I silently laugh to myself and continue with the eating ritual for the remaining seven dumplings. There is absolutely no comparison, Xiao Yang's squashes all its competitors, perfecting the art of sheng jian, creating and crafting a most tasty treat.

I am convinced that my mission is accomplished and my thoughts shift to Haibao and his delight or discomfort toward my dedication to uncovering the secrets of Shanghai. Take that, you silly blue wave.

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