From crab to table.
The problem with crabs is the packaging. They come in hard, difficult-to-eat shells. I don’t know who designed them, but they definitely didn’t think this through. How am I supposed to get a real satisfying bite of crab meat when you’ve wrapped it all in chitinous exoskeleton? Come on!
You know what they should have wrapped crabs in? Dumpling skin.
I know this because I found a re-packager near People’s Square, painstakingly removing crabs from those ridiculous shells and re-wrapping them in dumpling skins. It makes a lot of sense. For a city as crab-mad as Shanghai, I don’t know why more people aren’t doing this. Dumpling skins are much easier to eat.
That’s pretty much the beginning and the end of what makes Lai Lai Xiaolong
special. They make crab meat soup dumplings. Now that we are towards the end of the hairy crab season, and the males are at their peak, they make soup dumplings with just hairy crab meat, a little pork and a lot of creamy, white gao. Earlier in the year, when the females were best, they used those.
Many other places also make crab meat soup dumplings, including the one I’m partial to: Jia Jia Tangbao
. But more often than not, their crab meat is too strongly flavored for me and sometimes it’s fishy. Lai Lai’s are better.
The 58-year-old owner, Mr Cheng, is a practical Shanghainese guy. He says there is nothing special about Lai Lai’s dumplings, except that his employees re-package the meat and gao or huang from 250 kilos of hairy crabs every day, one little piece at a time. He estimates the cost for 500 grams of roe to be about 200rmb. His crab pickers work seven days a week during the season, finishing after midnight. He used to use frozen meat but about 10 years ago realized that wasn’t the way forward. Since hiring the pickers and switching to fresh crab, Lai Lai’s reputation has boomed.
As a soup dumpling “expert”, I agree with Mr Cheng that there is nothing technically surprising about Lai Lai’s dumplings. The dumpling wrappers are very average in thickness and flavor, with moderate-to-high number of pleats, and a low-to-average level of fineness and delicacy. They are less than two millimeters in thickness — when you sense it’s “thick” — but certainly above the 1.25 millimeter threshold that tells you they are “thin.” The wrappers are a means to an end, which is to deliver crabs from his kitchen to your face in neat packages. That they can also be eaten is a bonus. At Lai Lai, it’s not about the dumpling wrapper, it’s about the filling.
I could take this one step further and be totally eco-friendly about the whole thing: Old Jesse
serves crabs with no packaging at all, removing the meat and serving up tons of it over crusty rice in a hot stone pot. I had it last weekend with a group of chefs and restaurant people. Everyone agreed it was the best out of more than 20 dishes on the table. It looks like this.
The problem with that is you can’t just go and order one of those for lunch; it costs 500rmb.
There’s another restaurant other chefs have been telling me about that does hairy crab soup dumplings in like eight different ways, some with just the leg meat, some with just the body meat. It’s called Wu You Xian
. It’s got great ratings on Dianping.
But it’s a one-hour drive from downtown, and Lai Lai is just north of People’s Square.
And the basic theme of this article, and my life, is that I am lazy. I don’t want to pick my own crabs, I don’t want to make my own dumpling wrappers, and I definitely don’t want to spend three hours to go eat soup dumplings on a Tuesday when I’m supposed to be back at my desk at 1.30pm.
I’ll happily spend the extra money for Lai Lai to do the picking and crab re-packaging for me.
Lai Lai Xiaolong, 504 Tianjin Lu near Guangxi Bei Lu. 天津路504号近广西北路. Click here for more details.