If you've been in Shanghai for longer than thirty seconds then you'll have heard of Xiaolongbao. They're the soup-filled steamed dumplings that have single-handedly put this city on the sub-gastronomic map.
Xiaolongbao originate from Nanxiang, a grotty but picturesque canal-town on the western outskirts of Shanghai. There they have spent the last few decades perfecting the art of encasing a mouthful of meat and a slurp of soup into a pillowcase of dumpling. I make it sound weak. The truth is that they're utterly delicious and well worthy of queueing half an hour for.
Chinese people do not queue for anything except food. The most famous XLB outlet is Nanxiang's first outpost right in the middle of Shanghai's YuYuan Gardens. Here tourists and locals alike will wait for up to an hour to buy a dozen piping hot dumplings for ¥15 from a steamy window. Some will skip the queue and head sheepishly upstairs to the a slightly run-down dining room where menu prices are tripled.
As we all know though, it's the Taiwanese who tidy up things wich are rough around the edges. Din Tai Feng, the now-global chain of Chinese food restaurants sells probably the best executed XLBs in the world. http://www.flickr.com/photos/triplefivechina/9232179636/
It all started in Taipei, where a lowly worker in a cooking oil company (called Din Tai Feng) tried to revive the failing business by making food on the side. Before long people were coming for the Xiaolongbaos and not for the cooking oil. The rest is history which sees Din Tai Feng expanding their menu, getting a Michelin star in Hong Kong and spreading to USA, Australia and just about every capital city in South East Asia.
So, being partial to an XLB (the undisputed best local hole in the wall is at Gao'an and Jianguo where we used to live) we made the journey and visited the original Xinyi Rd Taipei Din Tai Feng that put XLB on the fine-dining map.
Whilst waiting for a table, greeters fluent in various global dialects exclaim tid-bits along the lines of "yo mate, I"m Rodney. DTF is the largest producer of XLB globally - how awesome is that? what's your favorite flavour?". etc.
Suffice to say they come in exactly the same flavours as Din Tai Feng shanghai; pork, prawn and crab and all mixture permutations thereof. Straight up pork is our favorite, and that's what I told Rodney, they've got the cheap XLB consistency I require - crab is too refined, too delicate. Rodney wasn't listening. He had already gone to hand out a Xiaolongbao eating guide to another group of pilgrims.