The chicken xiaolongbao...a.k.a. the chicken dumplings of joy...at Jia Jia Tang Bao in Shanghai.
Back now from one what was supposed to be one of the most picturesque places you could imagine, the river town of Zhujiajiao outside of Shanghai. Centuries old, stone slab streets, ancient pedestrian bridges, old canals though the village, it had it all.That's part of it in the picture at the left. A rare example of the Chinese government reigning in their seemingly insatiable appetite for erasing the old in the name of "progress". But like so many good ideas, this one is buried under the tsunami of capitalism that has a grip on the Chinese imagination, especially in the Shanghai area. The streets are filled with tourist traps selling every imaginable and unneeded trinket, scores of mediocre restaurants filling the hundreds of hungry mouths regurgitated from the tour buses. Ah, well, at least a nice time was had with w's Beloved Uncle, who was kind enough to brave the equally disturbing Shanghai traffic to spend the day with us.
The rampant consumerism of Zhujiajiao begs another question that has popped into my inquisitive brain on this my first trip to a Communist country: Where exactly is this Communism I've heard so much about (and grew up fearing)? I have to say I am somewhat disappointed about the lack of obvious signs of oppression and state control here. These people seem if anything supercharged...happy even! If this is oppression, then these people have figured out a way to profit from it.
And one of the things that has made me happiest on this trip so far can be summed up in one word: DUMPLINGS. I've got food to talk about. Great food. Food that is the stuff that obsessions are made of. Food that, as nice a husband as I am, if it came down to survival and that last xiaolongbao could get one of us off the desert island alive, w may have regretted her marital choice. I'm talking not just dumplings here. I'm talking barely held together bundles of translucent doughy joy, filled with a dab of meat gelatin which melts upon steaming, making the soup and combining with the other various meaty fillings.
In Shanghai, there seem to be two camps that lovers of xiaolongbao fall into as far as preferred providers: Jia Jia Tang Bao (where the girls can be seen working the production line above left, as everything is made to order) on Huanghe Street or the Taiwanese chain Ding Tai Feng. We ended up going to the one off underdogs Jia Jia, after I read about it on the Appetite for China blog, and it was spectacular! We joined the line, which apparently is always present at every worthy xiaolongbao joint, and before too long found ourselves in the door at the order counter. We chose three different preparations: shrimp, chicken (in the top picture), and a crab/pork combo (right). Twelve dumplings per order ranging in price from an insanely cheap $1.50 (U.S.) per order all the way up to a slightly deranged $2.50 for the crab/pork. They were all simply amazing. The method: pick up dumplings with your chopsticks, bite a small piece off the end and suck out the soup (as demonstrated by w at left), then dip the remainder...or not...in a light vinegar sauce and prepare for blissful feelings to encompass you. Oh, and a couple of cold beers isn't a bad idea, either. That's it. If there is anything better and cheaper out there, I can't wait to try it!