Is any foodstuff as booby-trapped as a xiaolongbao? Here are just a few of the things that can go wrong when you attempt to eat one of these iconic Shanghai pork soup dumplings: first, assuming your xiaolongbao is of the highest quality, its skin will be so thin as to be virtually translucent, and your chopsticks will almost certainly pierce a hole, releasing the piping hot soup into its grass-lined steamer basket, tragically never to be savoured — the catastrophe compounded as the newly pierced hole takes on board an excess of the vinegar-ginger dip. Or perhaps this sublime parcel of porcine perfection will burst en route to your mouth, shooting its contents over your shirt, chin or innocent bystanders. Meanwhile, misjudge their temperature and you risk a quantity of scalding pork soup detonating in your mouth. It's porky Russian roulette, I tell you.
But this crown jewel of Shanghai snacks is worth the risks, so I wait and I watch and I shadow, move-for-move, one of the city's hottest young chefs, Austin Hu, as he tackles the first of the dozen xiaolongbao (pronounced, 'shaow-long-bow') in the basket before us.
'It is all about the timing,' Austin explains, deftly holding a thus-far-intact dumpling aloft with his chopsticks. 'Getting them to the table straight away. That's the crucial thing.' Austin shows me how to avoid the mouth burn, with a controlled piercing of the dumpling's skin through which he noisily slurps the soup. I pull an involuntary Maggie Smith face, but Austin assures me this is the accepted method for eating xiaolongbao.
We are in a branch of Din Tai Fung (1376 Nanjing West Road, +86 21 6289 9182), a slick, modern chain that was actually founded in Taiwan by Shanghaiese émigrés. It is not what I'd expected when Austin offered to show me the Platonic ideal of xiaolongbao. I'd braced myself for a greasy back-alley joint: the kind of place towards which, in my experience, chefs tend to gravitate. 'I know, but the one thing I'm always looking for is consistency,' he says. 'And these guys are consistently excellent. Everything here, not just the dumplings, is near-perfect.'
Austin worked for several years at New York's
Gramercy Tavern before returning to the city his grandfather had fled during the Cultural Revolution. In 2010 he opened his restaurant Madison (18 Dongping Lu, +86 21 6437 0136), Modern American with a Shanghai twist, in the French Concession. Austin is one of Shanghai's new breed of chef-owner pioneers who are bringing a local/seasonal cooking approach to the city. He sources virtually everything — the caviar, the foie gras, even a drinkable pinot noir — from within China. 'Chinese food has had a bad rap,' he concedes. 'But we're trying to reclaim its image, using the best quality produce.' Last year Austin's clever, fresh, beautifully plated food saw him named Shanghai's best chef by the local press.
Way to go
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Shanghai from London Heathrow. Flight time: about 11 hours.
Join the Executive Club and earn up to 34,314 Avios points when you fly First to Shanghai (return). Or redeem your points: 60,000 gets you to Shanghai*.
*World Traveller return, excluding taxes, fees and surcharges.
Book now at ba.com