Because of their ubiquity from the most exclusive tables to the rowdiest streets, their compact size, and their sheer affordability, dumplings in its many forms have found their way in the list of most popular snack items for Filipinos—perhaps even surpassing hamburgers. This endearment for these bite-sized treats drove me to sign up for a dumplings tour in Shanghai, China. But instead of merely finding out how a dumpling is folded and made, the tour unexpectedly came with stories and insights about one of China’s most rapidly-growing cities. Read more…
From our lofty residence in Pudong, I made my way to Hengshan Road, in an area what was used to be the French Concession. Carla, our friendly guide with Dutch roots, has spent more than 20 years as an expat in various parts of China, of which ten were spent in Shanghai.
As we waited for a couple more to join us, I wasn’t able to help myself but delight in the lovely fall weather, complemented by the charm of the French Concession, which over the years of development, still retained much of its quaint, colonial allure.
Walking past rustic buildings and rustling autumn leaves, Carla began to explain Shanghai cuisine. Historically a crossroads for migrants because of its strategic positioning by the Yangtze River, Shanghai had much of its cuisine based on a hodgepodge of influences, especially from surrounding provinces: Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Jiangxi. As such, it is believed that the city doesn’t really possess a distinct cooking style it can call its own.
But despite picking up freely from other provinces, Shanghai cuisine has a recognizable flavor profile because most dishes are essentially cooked with sugar, rice wine, vinegar, and soy sauce. One flavor may overpower the other, but all tastes must be present in the dish harmoniously.
We found ourselves a little later at our first stop, a row of hawker stalls selling food to-go. Upon seeing us approaching, the man selling potstickers or guotie fired up his pan and began cooking nimbly. Potstickers, known as gyoza in Japan, are filled with pork, cabbage, scallions, ginger, rice wine, and aromatic sesame oil. They are best served hot and dipped in vinegar.
Although not officially part of the tour, Carla bought us some jianbing, a famous breakfast item in the streets of Shanghai. A crepe is topped with an egg, scallions, cilantro, and soybean paste, but before it is folded, a layer of crispy youtiao is intriguingly inserted to add texture. Afterwards, we had pork-filled steamed buns called baozi, or what we call here as siopao.
We walked to Jiangguo Xi Road for our next two stops, first of which was a hole-in-the-wall that features Shanghai’s most famous contribution to the world of food. Soup dumplings or xiaolongbao are filled with pork, crabmeat, and jelly or aspic from pork skin that becomes the soup. Although by the time I was doing the tour I’ve had quite a number of xiaolongbao already, my resistance was futile. Nothing beats a fresh xiaolongbao dipped in tasty black vinegar and eaten at an authentic Shanghai eatery!
Still reeling after a basket of good xiaolongbao, Carla took us next door for even more dumplings. After stories regarding Harbin and what their cuisine is like, we dug into boiled dumplings or shuijiao filled with pork and cabbage. I knew I’ve had similar dumplings at a placed called Dong Bei in Binondo (Manila’s Chinatown) before, and it turns out the name of the shop actually refers to Manchuria or Northeast China of which Harbin is part of. As a bonus, we had a refreshing tofu salad or leng fuzhu to cleanse our palates.
As we proceeded to our dumpling cooking class, Carla shared what life has been like over the years in Shanghai, especially when there was no metro system and hence no rapid progress. The big houses in the French Concession were once subleased per section to as many as 20 families, but those days are long gone now, and the area is one of the most expensive real estates in China.
Over at Dongping Road was our cooking class. Everything was hands-on and from-scratch in making our pan-fried buns or shengjian bao—from mixing the ingredients and kneading the dough to meticulously folding the dumplings and finally cooking them. Although the jolly auntie who instructed us that morning spoke virtually no English, we had a fun time communicating in hand gestures. I’m proud to say the dumplings I made looked beautiful and tasted good!
After chowing down six of my handcrafted creations, it was time for us to get going. Carla took us through more of the French Concession’s charming tree-lined streets and showed us around a market. Indeed, the Chinese eat a lot of quirky and downright strange stuff.
And just when I thought we’ve had enough dumplings for the day, there still was a final stop—an eatery in Fuxing Road that specializes in fragrant small wontons or yuntun. After savoring the last drop of the tasty broth, it was time for me to tap out—I walked away filled and happy.
The Dumpling Delights Tour, which includes a hands-on dumpling-making class, is a signature offering by UnTour Shanghai, a small but top-rated travel company based locally. For more information on their public and private tours, check out their website at untourshanghai.com.
Cebu Pacific Air, the Philippines’ largest national flag carrier, flies from Manila to Shanghai daily. The outbound flight departs Manila at 8:20 PM and arrives Shanghai at 11:45 PM, while the return flight departs Shanghai the next day at 12:30 AM and arrives Manila at 4:00 AM.