I recently saw an ad for a "Jiaozi Fusion Night" at a local expat bar. The place was offering jiaozi, a classic variety of Chinese dumplings, stuffed with Western ingredients such as tomato sauce and cheese. It read: "Ever wondered what a jiaozi stuffed with pepperoni and mozzarella with a side of marinara sauce would taste like?"
Let me answer that: H__ell no.
At no point in my myriad dumpling explorations have I ever wondered what a jiaozi with pepperoni and mozzarella would taste like. I have never thought: "This is incredible, but it could really use some shitty cheese." No. I do not need to go into a celebrated food tradition with my Western ingredients and fuck it up all imperialistically.
Jiaozi are tasty, nugget-sized bits of meat, vegetables, and whatever else, really, inside a rice-flour wrapper. Many people just call them "dumplings." But a China Pro Tip for all you newbs: Ditch the word "dumpling," because you're using it wrong.
I remember the first time I said the word "dumpling" around my Chinese best friend. It was my first time in Shanghai, and I'd just had a sheng jian bao. More importantly, I was naïve.
"These are great dumplings," I said, expecting her to respond with cheerful affirmation.
"They're not dumplings!" she snapped. "They're sheng jian bao!"
At this early stage in my Chinese life, I was still dumb enough to argue with her.
"But I looked it up online and it literally translates to 'dumpling,'" I said.
Yes, technically we would translate sheng jian bao as "dumplings," but that's mostly because we don't know any better. There are so many varieties of dumpling in Shanghai alone that to use the same name for all of them is not only ignorant, but insulting to the men and women cranking out amazing, highly specialized varieties every day.
To help you sound like less of an idiot, I've put together the following guide to the varieties of "dumpling" you'll find in Shanghai.
Let's start with the basics. These are the dumplings of your Western imagination, the dumplings you may find at your local Chinese takeout joint, and maybe the dumplings you think all dumplings look like. Yellow-white rice-flour dough holds ground pork together in a vaguely football-ish shape.
Jiaozi are as multi-varied as they are ubiquitous. On my block alone, I can find jiaozi filled with pork, lamb, vegetables, SPAM, and mushrooms. Pork is the most common.
While we're at it, let's go over how this works. Step one, your waitress or vendor will ask you how many you want. This is the number of orders, not how many individual dumplings you want, dummy. Do not say "nine" unless you want nine full plates of dumplings for you and your group of, like, 12.
Next, the actual eating process. On your table will be a stack of tiny bowls, a canister of vinegar, and a jar of hot chili flakes. Pour the vinegar into one of the bowls and sprinkle with some chili flakes. Dip your jiaozi in the bowl and enjoy.
Xiaolongbao—a.k.a. soup dumplings—are jiaozi's daintier, more elegant sister, as well as the global celebrity of Shanghai dumplings. Customers, some from opposite ends of the world, form long queues outside renowned xiaolongbao joints such as Din Tai Fung and Jia Jia Tangbao.
But waiting in line is only the first part of this challenge. The second part of the challenge is eating the damn thing. If you proceed hastily and recklessly, there will be a puddle of burning hot soup on your pants. I advise caution.
Only a thin wrapper separates you from the dangerous mix inside: meat surrounded by steaming soup. Cooks actually place a cube of meat aspic inside the xiaolongbao before pinching the wrapper closed. The gelatin melts into a soup as the xiaolongbao are set to steam.
Here's the secret to eating these successfully: Start by biting a tiny hole in the wrapper and sucking out the soup. Once the soup's out, you can eat the rest without fear of burning yourself. Don't casually dangle the xiaolongbao over your lap. Crucial advice: Eat over your plate.
This is one of the best culinary experiences in all of Shanghai. And if you want the real Shanghai experience, get crab xiaolongbao. The Shanghainese love crab.
Even still, some of my fellow China-dumb expats still see the scorching soup situation as a bit of a turnoff.
"I'm sure some people love the masochistic side of it," said my coworker, rolling his eyes at me.
If all the dumpling varieties held a beauty contest,
would win. Each shumai's top is pinched into a lovely flower shape, and the wrappers are suggestively translucent.
No worries about soup here; shumai are firmer, drier and more straightforward to eat. The kind I always get are stuffed with—surprise—pork, but have bits of chopped bamboo shoot, too.
Here in China, I frequent a shop called Juicy Meat Buns. The logo is literally a cartoon dude licking his lips all #bootyhadmelike.
The technical term is baozi, although the aforementioned vaguely sexual English name works too, because these things get me excited. Baozi are a breadier style of dumpling—the wrapper is like a fluffy, savory biscuit that sops up all the juices floating around inside.
Once again, fillings vary—everything from carrots and bamboo slivers to bok choy and tofu—but pork is standard.
You probably know this one (congratulations!). The wontons that you'll find in China are far better than any wonton you know back in the States. Cooks have greater creative liberty with wontons, since they play around with both the fillings and the soup.
In Central China, a type of wonton served in a bowl of vinegar is both popular and aggressively sour. But in the Shanghai region, wontons are generally served in unintimidating, savory meat stocks.
Sheng Jian Bao
This is the fried, fast food favorite of Shanghai dumplings, often eaten for breakfast. Like xiaolongbao, you'll have to watch out for steaming soup on the inside. But unlike xiaolongbao, you can pick up a meal's worth of these for, I kid you not, the equivalent of one US dollar.
For all the aforementioned dumpling varieties, pork was the most common filling. That's what makes halal jiaozi so unique—the lamb meat between its rice-flour sheets. Yes, that "halal."
Halal joints dot Shanghai, catering both to China's Muslim minority and the white girls like me who just like the food.
Trying each variety of these seven varieties of Shanghai dumpling has truly been a revelation. Except the SPAM dumplings. You'll notice I left those out.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2015.