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Aug 10, 2007 12:06 AM

confusion about soup dumplings? XLB?

The Boston board is having a mini discussion on soup dumplings as we know it in the United States. I just wanted to share a little something I came across in 2004 in China. Maybe this will further confuse the issue, but maybe it's good just to know that there's a "he says, she says" in China about these dumplings/baos, and that us in the States may have to keep our minds open about which food came from whence.

1) a picture I took in Shanghai's famed Nanxiang restaurant. (I'm refraining from saying the actual restaurant name....oh well, it's Nanxiang Mantou, but this is another topic. These are Xiao Long Bao, but they don't really have the amount of soup, nor the "look" of what we in the US think Xiao Long Baos ought to be. We like to presume, but they were there first.

2) A picture I took in the old city of Kai Feng (site of capitols of olden Chinese Dynasties. Very prosperous very long ago.) in Henan province of China. These are what we see in the States as "soup dumplings". But here, in this city they call them "Guan Tang Bao" ("soup-filled bao). They claim that it all started HERE, not Shanghai. Kai Feng as a city is certainly much older than Shanghai, so they may have a point there. Though, in the modern day, more people know of Shanghai than Kai don't feel bad that you've never heard of this place. Maybe though, we should start calling the soup dumplings by the original name: Guan4 Tang1 Bao1.

3) Just an example (very delicious example) of what transplants bring to Shanghai: This woman is fresh from Harbin, way north east of China. She'd just opened up shop in Shanghai's Hongqiao area, just a few days before my first visit of Shanghai in 2004. How lucky was I? Other Shanghainese were trying out this particular way of cooking mantou, for 50 cents RMB each. Boy, those crust!

So what would happen if one of the US restauranteur goes to Shanghai, open up a restaurant and serve the "soup dumplings" as we know it here? I wonder...

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  1. Nanxiang Mantou was closed for renovations when I visited Shanghai last September, but none of the xiao long bao I did try in the city had as much soup as I've come to expect. The shengjian mantou I sampled at Yang's Fry-Dumpling, however, filled the bill nicely:

    1. Here in CA, I have had XLB that looks like your photo for 1). For 2), they seem rather flat, I have not had such flat XLB's here in the west coast. Just an fyi...

      1 Reply
      1. re: justagthing

        2) are flat because it's got a lot of soup in there. When you pick it up with the chopsticks, taking hold of the center with the folds gather, the dumplings changes into a tear drp shape. The skin is barely thin enough not to break, but still pliable to change shape with the liquid.

        Here in the east coast, New Green Bo in Manhattan, and Nanxiang Xiaolong Bao (not the one in China) in Flushing have that type of skin. You pretty much want to have a Chinese spoon underneath at all time as a safety net.

        In Flushing though, there are also what the Chinese know as the straight forward Xiao Long Bao, and it's a thin, bready skin steamed bun, sometimes with juicier filling, but never full out soup. The skin doens't allow changing of shapes, either.

      2. OK here is my take.

        1. Here on the west coast XLB is apparently different from the east coast. It's much more like the Shanghai version. This is served by practically all the Shanghainese restaurants here. Ding Tai Fung in LA is one example.

        2. The Cantonese version is often called Guan Tan Bao. But it's a lot bigger and often filled with shark fin soup.

        3. What you have in this picture is pan fried bao (Shan tsin bao), and is often sold on street stalls in Shanghai. It dosen't contain any soup, aside from the juice of the meat inside. I call this a peasant food. The skin is thicker, more appropriate for taking into the field if you are a farmer. XLB cannot be taken into the field.

        4. A mantou is not a bao. Mantou is a steamed bun with no fillings, This is commonly eaten in northern China.

        4 Replies
        1. re: PeterL

          PeterL, if you're addressing me, I think we can agree on your point #1.

          #2, I think the Cantonese verions is called Guan Tan "Jiao", not "Bao". Jiao is the character for dumpling as we know it today.

          #3 Dave Cook's picture is the pan fired Bao (shen1 Jian1 Bao1 in Mandarin) and, yes, as you said, thicker skin, breadier. It's cooked with similar method as the potstickers: cooked oiled griddle with a lid on to steam at the same time. XLB as the Chinese know it can certainly be taken anywhere, but not the "soup dumplings' as we know it over here on the East Coast.
          My #3 picture however, with the Harbin lady as the pastry chef is most certainly NOT filled, and NOT Shen Jian Bao, They are Mantou in the sense that we commonly assume Mantou to be: Plain steamed bread, no filling. These are mantou as the northerners' staple. BUT, they are just cooked with the added griddle for the crispy bottem. I'm no making it up. I had it every morning I was there. My point in posting that picture is to illustrate the fact that even though I had it in Shanghai, it actually had just gotten there from Harbin, and that the local Shanghainese hadn't had them, either until then. I wonder if we have any Harbin transplants amongst us to id these?

          #4 A mantou, is not a bao, normally. Except when old establishments such as Nanxiang (in Shanghai) and Men Ding (in Beijing) called their bao respectively, "Nanxiang Mantou" and "Rou Ding mantou". I'm getting this info from Mr Tang Lu Suen's 10th volume on food in China. Even he was puzzled over the use of "mantou" for "bao zi".

          1. re: HLing

            My local market here in Chengdu has those mantou as well, in a stall that makes fried baozi in a similar manner with that little steam spout in the middle of the grill. I didn't try the mantou and don't know what region they are supposedly from, but the fried baozi just tasted like most baozi I've eaten in Chengdu - very dark, rich, and vinegary inside, except with a crust. I was hoping they'd taste like sheng jian bao but liked them anyway. The same stall makes jian (fried) jiaozi but I don't remember if it is a steam grill or regular. People line up for the jiaozi and baozi.

          2. re: PeterL

            In Shanghai, XLB is called xiao long man tou; hence the name for Nanxiang ends in mantou dian (shop).

            1. re: limster

              Limster, glad you said that. I didn't notice that when I was in Shanghai a couple of years ago! I thought it was just something from the past. The man I mentioned above is a true Chowhound from the 70's. He was puzzled and brought up the two places, one southern, one northern, both calling their filled buns "mantou". He got as far as ruling out the northern/southern regional difference since there were one example from each region.

          3. In answer to your question as to what would happen if a USA Chinese restaurateur went back to Shanghai and opened a restaurant and served the “soupy dumplings” as they are made here in America, the restaurant would probably go out of business quite shortly, if the remarks about XLB’s at Liao Yusheng’s website are reasonably accurate. Mr. Liao, put up a very detailed blog on the status of XLB’s in the world in 2005:

            Liao Yusheng’s blog comment is a very opinionated essay on the state of Xiao Long Bao’s in NYC and elsewhere in the Asian world. Liao is a very tough critic of Xiao Long Bao’s and even considers the dumplings at the famous Nan Xiang restaurant in the Yu Garden shopping area in Shanghai as disappointing with the skin not being thin enough. The blog contains many pictures of XLB’s that he has tasted and 30 comments by other readers. Mr. Liao does not consider the XLB’s in America to be very good.

            Liao made the statement that if the XLB’s at Nan Xiang were “in New York it would be by far the best xiao long bao in the city,” in spite of the Nan Xiang XLB’s being trashed by Liao as being “disappointing” with too thick skins and also statements by Gary Soup in his Chowhound postings that Nan Xiang’s best days making XLB’s are over. We happened to be in Shanghai in 2006, and after trying the XLB’s at the famous Nan Xiang restaurant in the Yu Garden area on the third floor where supposedly the XLB’s are better, we can confirm Liao’s statement about NYC’s XLB’s, since we found the Nan Xiang XLB’s to be pretty good, with fairly thin skins, flavorful broth, and tasty fillings, which were better than most XLB’s that we have eaten in NYC. Although for a very short period, the XLB’s at Yangtze River Restaurant in Flushing (no longer in business) made by a particular woman in the front window of the restaurant, were very good also. Unfortunately, we were not able to try the XLB’s at Jia Jia Tang Bao, a little hole in the wall restaurant selling only XLB’s made to order in the Hungpu area that was recommended by both Liao Yusheng and Gary Soup ( - Update at as by far the best XLB’s in Shanghai. The pictures of the XLB’s at Jia Jia Tang Bao taken by Liao Yusheng look very thin and delicate, plus at the price of 15 XLB’s for the low price of Y6 in 2005, based upon value, the XLB’s at Jia Jia would be hard to beat.

            The physical layout of the Nan Xiang restaurant as mentioned by Liao is very interesting with a very capitalistic emphasis. The restaurant has three floors with the first floor selling takeout XLB’s, the second floor with sit down service, and the upstairs third floor as the deluxe higher price floor having air-conditioning and supposedly better XLB’s than the first and second floors. The third floor is further divided into two sections, one that requires Y60 per person minimums ($1=Y8 in 2006) where you have your own table and the Y25 per person minimum where you must share your table with other customers; our family being very frugal, we ate at the Y25 section.

            In looking at your pictures of the XLB’s at Nan Xiang, they look fairly thick and it would appear that they were served on the second floor, since the steamer basket contains 14 XLB’s. The XLB’s sold on the third floor come 6 XLB’s to a basket which supposedly are better quality and cost a lot more. Although the pictures that Liao Yusheng took of the Nan Xiang XLB’s on the third floor also show the XLB skins to be rather thick, our memory of the XLB’s we ate on the third floor was that they were reasonably thin. Apparently, pictures of the XLB’s can sometimes be deceiving in terms of assessing their thickness.

            Here are some Youtube videos of XLB’s being made at the first floor kitchen of the Nan Xiang restaurant in Yu Garden in Shanghai:

            c. (Near the end of this video at 1:14, the XLB’s look much flatter than the XLB’s shown in your picture of the Nan Xiang XLB’s, but notice that there were only 6 XLB’s in the steamer basket, hence it may be possible that the XLB’s are really of different quality depending on the floor and cost of the XLB’s.


            From all of the many different pictures of XLB’s shown at Liao Yusheng’s site and in your initial post, it is obvious that there are many variations of XLB’s, but we would think that the generic aspects of all good XLB’s would be that they all must have very thin and tender skins, tasty fillings, and a broth full of flavor, with all three elements in the proper proportion.

            Appended below are pictures of XLB’s: The first picture is of the Jia Jia Tang Bao’s XLB’s (15 XLB’s to a steamer). The second photo is of the Nan Xiang XLB’s (6 XLB’s to a steamer). Both pictures are from Liao Yusheng’s website.

            2 Replies
            1. re: lwong

              "...The physical layout of the Nan Xiang restaurant as mentioned by Liao is very interesting with a very capitalistic emphasis. The restaurant has three floors with the first floor selling takeout XLB’s, the second floor with sit down service, and the upstairs third floor as the deluxe higher price floor having air-conditioning and supposedly better XLB’s than the first and second floors...."

              The local friend who took me to eat at Nanxiang in Shanghai didn't believe in paying double just to be on the top floor. She said she'd had it on the 3rd floor and the 2nd floor, and that the dumplings are pretty much the same. It's just that eating on the 2nd floor isn't leisurely. You are rushed in and rushed out. Their system is part of the whole experience, though. If you look at the picture carefully, on the left side, between the two women eaters, there' s someone standing, holding two pieces of paper. That is part of the next round of people waiting for a seat. You wait in line until you are waived into the seating area. You then go to one of the round tables, and stand behind someone who has just sat down and ordered, or has started to eat. You wait for them to finish eating and then you take their seat and do the quick ordering, while, of course, someone would come and stand behind you and do the same. It's really a case of eating while someone's breathing down your neck.

              Jia Jia Tang Bao's XLB looks delicious. It does look more home made. I wish I had a picture of Ding Tai Feng's dumplings now, though. I had read somewhere that each dumpling is required to have 18 folds/gathers. It'd interesting to see pictures of the 3 places side by side for comparison.

              1. re: HLing

                Thanks for the detailed insider information about the XLB’s on the different floors at the Nan Xiang restaurant.

                When we were at the Nan Xiang restaurant, we were curious about the different pricing on the different floors and we did take a gander on the second floor and we would have to agree that the second floor did look a little chaotic with people milling all around, and the information about people “holding two pieces of paper” standing behind you patiently waiting for your seat was interesting. With the new modernization of China, we thought this practice of standing behind a person seated at a table to wait for their seat was an anachronism that had ended (a member of our family grew up in Beijing and had mentioned this facet of living in Beijing), but from your discussion of it, apparently it is still practiced. But the main reason we decided to eat on the third floor was that it was June and a little on the warm and humid side and we had also heard the rumor that the third floor had better quality XLB’s, hence we decided to take advantage of our foreign exchange advantage to have air-conditioning and possibly better quality XLB’s. As a side note, the foreign exchange advantage (still high at the present 2007 exchange rate of approx. 7.6 to 1) allows ordinary middle class people from America visiting China to experience what it feels like to be a millionaire tossing around Y100 notes like Monopoly money and enjoying high end restaurants at middle class prices. When our family returned from China last year, it was a Cinderella moment as our coach and footmen all reverted back to a pumpkin and mice and our silk clothes turned into rags and our family had to return to counting our pennies again. However, if the dollar currency collapses, which many are intimating is a possibility that might happen in the future, no one will be able to play the Cinderella game any longer in China.

                The next time we are in Shanghai, if the temperatures are much cooler, we will certainly try the cheaper XLB’s on the second floor of the Nan Xiang restaurant or if we have time to wait for 45 minutes or longer, try the almost free XLB’s (for foreign visitors with foreign exchange) at the first floor takeout window. Did your friend mention if the takeout XLB’s are also “pretty much the same” in quality as the XLB’s served in the upper floors?

                You had mentioned you would like to see a picture of XLB’s from Ding Tai Feng’s, hence below is a picture of XLB’s from the Taipei Ding Tai Feng restaurant:

            2. This is a long shot but I wonder if there is any Jewish influence in Kaifeng food. A thousand years ago Kaifeng had a thriving Jewish community.

              Kaifeng is a backwater town today but a thousand years ago it was the capital of China. It was graced by thousand foot wide boulevards flanked by fruit trees and ornamental canals. It was a time of intellectual and cultural ferment, with great advances in philosophy and art. I visited it many years ago to see what was left and found a tiny provincial town with rickety 300 year old houses lining narrow streets. I'd heard about the Jewish community and while there tried to find it. The synagogue had been torn down, and a health clinic stood in its place. There were no practising Jews, but one old lady, a pleasant, smiling dumpling of a woman, who looked Chinese like everyone else, claimed Jewish descent.

              But maybe their recipes lived on?

              3 Replies
              1. re: Brian S

                Well, Brian S, we can see where you are going with this. Although we have limited knowledge of both evolution and Jewish food, it is quite conceivable that if XLB’s did originate from Kaifeng first, the precursor of the XLB might well have been the Kreplach. As stated in your post that there was a rather large Jewish community in Kaifeng a thousand years ago, it is quite possible that some Kaifeng natives might have been invited to share a meal during the Yom Kippur or Purim holidays with the Jewish community and were introduced to Kreplachs. It could easily be seen how a dough skin filled with meats (see photo at the bottom of Kreplachs) could have evolved over time into a dumpling with soup and meat inside and cooked by steaming that is now called a XLB. However, we will leave confirmation of this “long shot” possibility to a more credentialed food historian to establish the dates of origin of the Kreplach, Chinese dumplings, xiao long baos, and the possible cross cultural influences of Jewish food in China.

                Now do you think this ancient Jewish/Kaifeng linkage might also explain the affinity that the Jewish people have for Chinese food in America? Is it possible that some of the later descendents of these early Kaifeng Jewish who enjoyed Chinese food might have immigrated to America? The early Chinese immigrants in the NYC area have always been thankful for the Jewish patronage of the Chinese-America food served in countless takeout and sit down Chinese restaurants in the NYC area, which have in turn afforded many generations of NYC Asian students the opportunity to be educated at the University level. Maybe at the next Chinese New Year’s celebration, the NYC Chinese ought to set off a few packs of firecrackers to honor the Kaifeng/Jewish in America connection, surreptitiously of course (as much as one can with fireworks), since NYC has zero tolerance for illegal fireworks, even for something as auspicious as the possible newfound connection of the Kaifeng Jewish and the American Jewish communities and the possible influence of Jewish food on Chinese cuisine.

                Below is a picture of Kreplachs.

                1. re: Brian S

                  Brian, you and I have been on exactly the same quest. We found that old lady too.... (see photo)

                  We spoke for over an hour with the old lady (my wife is Taiwanese, so communication problems were minimized). She told us that most of the Jews have left for jobs in other cities and that just a handful are left. We asked her if she kept kosher or followed any Jewish traditions, and she said that she doesn't eat pork but that's about the extent of it. She has a granddaughter that studies in Israel.

                  As for the food, since there is a huge Muslim population there, and in fact we had one of the best corned beef sandwiches of our life there in a fresh baked sesame pita pocket (see photos). Kaifeng is one of the few Chinese cities with a true bustling night market on par with Taiwan, and we tried to take full advantage of it while we were there.

                  Mr Taster
                  Protect Chowhound
                  Boycott Avatars!

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    Mr. Taster, thanks for the pictures! I knew of the night market in Kaifeng but my itinerary didn't allow me to stay late enough to see it.

                    The corned beef though, I just totally didn't put 2 & 2 together that THAT's corned beef! That beef is everywhere in Zhengzhou, and probably most other major northern Chinese cities. As well as in the home of a Martial artist I visited who lived in the country, in the middle of no where, where I think he and his wife makes there own Chinese bread daily, cured the meats, make sauces that you put away for 3 months before it's ready to eat. That's some delicious corned beef he served up then....thinking back..