People ask me a lot, What’s your next project? What food are you going to index next? I kind of half-heartedly give a stock answer: shengjian bao (fried pork bun). Half-heartedly because I know there’s problems with doing it. Half-heartedly because I don’t want to be The Guy Who Indexes Dumplings forever.
I was earnest for a while. I looked into how I might do it. But there were problems. Shengjian bao depend on crunch, like a pot-sticker. But measuring crunch is not easy. I trawled through a lot of scientific papers by people who study the senses – potato chip scientists – and what I learned is that crunch is, more than a texture, a sound. Something like 90% of what we perceive as crunch is actually the sound of a crunch that is transmitted from our mouth, through our jawbone and into our ears. Scientists who made people wear earplugs and then eat potato chips found that those people consistently judged the potato chips to be stale. So shengjian bao – not happening.
The other problem is that there are at least two long-established schools of shengjian bao, and so it’s impossible to set a standard for what a good one is, and there’s no way in the fucking world this white guy is going to start picking which standard the Shanghainese should follow.
So I went for a creative cop-out. This.
Just your standard issue double-axis wheaten foods scatter graph. In the top right corner, that’s a baozi. Soft, white, pillowy, steamed, full of pork and gravy. On the bottom left, you’ve got a pot-sticker. Thin-skinned, unleavened, very crispy.
Those are the extremes. Every single shengjian fits somewhere on the spectrum between those two. The farther you travel to the right on the x-axis, the puffier the shengjian bao. The farther to the left, the less puffy. Move down, more crispy. Move up, more steamed. If you wanted to be a really crazy son of a bitch, you could even throw a jiaozi on this thing: same location on the x-axis as the pot-sticker (not puffy at all), same height as the baozi on the y-axis (not crispy at all).
That was my solution.
And then to go along with it, I figured I’d use color as a proxy for crispyness, so I bought Pantone swatches that I could match to the dumpling bottoms. All that was left was, uh… going to 50 different places and actually doing it.
And then… and then… and then… I gave up.
How to Eat Shengjian Bao in Shanghai
Instead you get this, a primer to the different schools of shengjian bao in the city, and a copyright-free suggestion for how you can go waste months of your life fiddling around with a greasy snack food and format the results on a scatter graph for a pseudo-scientific WeChat post or something. I’ll lend you the Pantone swatches, no cost. Brand new.
But let’s talk reality. Dianping gives 50 pages of results for shengjian bao and I can tell you pretty clearly that that is bullshit. Not just because 30 of those pages are for Xiao Yang’s. But because there are really only three styles of shengjian you need to know, and then you know (almost) everything. (There’s a fourth but it’s not essential.) Every other shengjian bao place in the city falls under one of these three categories.
The first two schools are thin-skinned/juicy vs puffy/+soup and they have been at war for almost 100 years. Luo Chun Ge started in the 1930s and was the very first shengjian place in Shanghai. They made their dumplings extra juicy and thin-skinned. Luo Chun Ge went out of business years ago. The second shengjian shop in Shanghai was Da Hu Chun and they are still going. Their shengjian have puffy skin, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and little to no juice inside. Instead, you are supposed to order a bowl of soup on the side.
The School of Full Leavening: Da Hu Chun
All three schools are defined by how they leaven the dough they use for their skins. Da Hu Chun is at one end of the spectrum because their dough is fully leavened, i.e., it's yeasted and allowed to rise, and so it’s puffy. Not as puffy as a baozi but pretty puffy.
That has a knock-on effect on the juiciness. Da Hu Chun are the shengjian with no soup inside. That is deliberate. The chain does not used pidong, the jellified stock that gives dumplings (and particularly soup dumplings) their juice. Don’t ask why. That’s just how it is. Instead, you’re meant to order a curry beef soup on the side. Don’t bother. It’s MSG water + curry powder. A waste of time.
The bao themselves are smaller than many places and the filling is a bit sweet. Also, all of their locations except the recently renovated flagship on Sichuan Lu are grimy and gross. But it’s not stopping them. I interviewed their chefs a couple months back and they told me two interesting things.
One, when they got invited to cook for the supreme leaders of the country in Beijing last year. Not only did they bring the obvious ingredients, they brought an entire stove and several bottles of Shanghai water. They served two shengjian bao to all the members of the Politburo and that was enough, except for Han Zheng, the former mayor of Shanghai, who had eight. Hometown pride!
Two, their shithole of a store on Yunnan Nan Lu does 700,000rmb in business a month. Go there. Ponder that.
The School of No Leavening: Xiao Yang
Xiao Yang’s are the fake tits of the shengjian world. They are huge and pretty to look at it, but when it comes to go-time, they aren’t all that functional. If you are going to get burned by a shengjian bao, it’s going to be here. Xiao Yang’s massive shengjian have a pornographic amount of soup, and, for their critics, way too much meat. I suppose that begs the question, in China, can you ever have too much pork? And the answer is: Xiao Yang’s has 114 shops in Shanghai.
Perhaps that doesn’t make Xiao Yang’s sound all that appealing. That’s a mistake. I don’t eat them often, mainly because I’m not trying to have a heart attack before I turn 37, but when I do, I enjoy them. But they are an exaggeration, no doubt.
Technically speaking, they are using an unleavened dough for the wrapper. They might as well be called pot-stickers. One give-away to this is to look at a cold Xiao Yang’s bao: what is full and round in the pan becomes sad and deflated when cold.
Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It’s how the Da Hu Chun people talked shit about Xiao Yang’s and, objectively, they are right. Xiao Yang’s are also good cold, straight out of the refrigerator on day two. They are like a British meat pie.
Spiritually speaking, Xiao Yang’s are the direct descendants of Luo Chun Ge, the original shengjian bao shop in Shanghai.
The Middle Way: Half-Leavened: Dong Tai Xiang
I suppose if your choices of shengjian bao twenty years ago were fully leavened or unleavened, it was only a matter of time before someone split the difference and went half-leavened. That is Dong Tai Xiang.
They are a small chain with a big song and dance about preserving the “original” and “traditional” method of making shengjian bao, and some B.S. about intangible cultural heritage.
Piss-taking out of the way, Dong Tai Xiang are my favorite shengjian bao in Shanghai by far. They are the perfect compromise between Xiao Yang’s and Da Hu Chun. The wrapper has a little bit of puff, which is great for soaking up some, but not all, of the soup. The bao themselves aren’t too big, the bottoms always have a good crunch, and the store near the highway is open 24 hours.
The chef of Dong Tai Xiang has told me that making half-leavened wrappers is particularly difficult, because you are constantly balancing time and temperature to make sure you have some leavening but not too much, so it’s a continuous dance between room temperature and refrigerator, and once the dumplings are wrapped, they can’t be held for too long. (Unlike soup dumplings, shengjian bao are rarely wrapped to order, with ill effects.)
I’m neither bothered nor convinced by the dumpling heritage recognition quest. I called the intangible cultural heritage office. The only dumpling listed is the Nanxiang soup dumpling. That’s just fine. Dong Tai Xiang does not need the government to tell them they are good.
Old School: Gaochi
Before commercial yeasts made it easy for anyone to make leavened food (not just dumpling wrappers, but bread and whatever too), people used wild yeast, present in the air all around us, to nurture what’s called a starter culture. Lots of people still do this. It’s crucial for making sourdough bread. The advantage, other than having this little pet-like thing that you have to take care of and feed regularly (bakers are weird), is that a starter culture, and its range of wild yeasts, has a lot more flavor than the dried monoculture granules that come from a yeast packet.
Gaochi, which basically means Gao’s, uses a starter culture. They are the only ones in Shanghai to do that, and they actually imported their starter culture – well, their whole brand – from Taiwan, when they opened at K11 in 2016. Da Hu Chun told me they gave up on their starter in the 1970s. Too mafan.
There are a whole host of differences at Gaochi, and I suppose you’d attribute that to their parallel development. The original Mr. Gao left Shanghai for Taiwan in 1949 and started a shengjian bao shop there. Obviously he was using 1940s techniques, and throughout the generations, his descendants kept making them the same way. Taiwan. Gotta love Taiwan. So, in some ways, a Gaochi bao is like a time capsule, a way to see how these dumplings might have tasted in Shanghai in the '40s.
From a technical perspective, there’s a lot going on with a Gaochi bao. For one, it’s small, about the size of a lime. For two, the wrapper has a wonderful sour tang, the same tang you get in other fermented foods like sourdough bread or beer. For three, they taste of clean oil, and the pork has the distinct seasoning of Shaoxing wine and ginger. For four, double bottoms. Gaochi cooks all their shengjian to order in tiny pans that hold exactly eight bao – eight around the perimeter and one in the center. That means that the outer seven get crispy not just on the bottom but on the side as well. Disruption in the shengjian space.
Clearly I’m a fan. I like the combination of history and technical prowess, and I think using the starter culture adds a real layer of flavor you don’t get at any other shengjian bao shop in the city. If you have to put this in a school, it’d be in something like ¾ leavening – puffy but with a touch of juice, halfway between Dong Tai Xiang and Da Hu Chun. The price is higher because the shop is nice, it’s in a fancy mall, and the overall experience is on another level. Shanghainese and purists will probably hunt me down for liking this place.
Come at me.