People have opinions about xiao long bao. And for good reason: xiao long bao (or XLB, or soup dumplings, or shoronpo as they’re called in Japanese) are enchanting: semi-translucent satchels of dough encasing balls of minced pork suspended in, curiously, soup. In that magnificent way that the Chinese language has of mythologizing food they are literally “little dragon buns.” Where to find the best ones is a constant subject of debate.
Xiao long bao originate in Shanghai, though you don’t have to have any attachment to the city to crave them. They’re also huge, for example, in New York City. In Shanghai, tourists love to line up in front of Nanxiang Mantou Dian, the city’s most famous dumpling shop. Lucky Tokyo has its own branch of this storied, century-old shop, rendered in Japanese as Nansho Mantoten (Roppongi Hills Hillside 1F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5413-9581; www.nansho-mantouten.com).
Tokyo’s Nansho Mantoten is a little fancy, so the chefs also stuff the buns with some fancy stuff, such as abalone, fois gras or truffles, in addition to the classic pork. (My favorite is sort of fancy: pork with crab roe, or xie fen xiao long bao. Crab roe, like garlic, makes everything better). The chefs are from Shanghai — as is the roe, from those famous Shanghai hairy crabs — and you can watch them making dumplings in the window.
Incidentally, you can watch the chefs all day and still not crack the mystery central to XLB: namely, how they get the soup into the dumplings. There are hypotheses about syringes and black magic; more likely, there is aspic involved, and the soup is something that happens when the dumplings are steamed.
Nansho Mantoten also has a second branch in Shibuya, by the way.
I think the XLB at Nansho Mantoten are pretty good, but they may not be the best in Tokyo. Because while Nanxiang Mantou Dian may be the most famous dumpling restaurant in Shanghai, Din Tai Fung (www.dintaifungusa.com) is the most famous dumpling restaurant in the world.
Din Tai Fung is from Taipei, but there are branches in several countries, including a dozen in Japan (in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Yokohama and six in Tokyo). One in Hong Kong was awarded a Michelin star. There are also people who make pilgrimages to several branches and write long blog posts comparing them.
The XLB at DTF (are you following all the lingo?) are famous for having really thin skin. It is impressive: When you pick up the delicate dumpling from its top knot with your chopsticks it sags under the weight of the meat and soup (another good sign, indicating copious soup) yet does not burst. The meat is tender, the broth refined; the crab roe is heady, intoxicating. I think they are very good; my friend from Shanghai says they’re the best in Tokyo, though by default: “Nothing else has impressed me yet,” he says.
Sadly, I’ve heard that the Tokyo branches don’t compare to the original, or even the other branches in China. But of course your globe-trotting foodie friends are going to say something like that. It should also be noted that Din Tai Fung is exceedingly popular in Japan and can be very crowded. In particular, the branch in Shinjuku Takashimaya is known to have waits of over an hour on the weekend.
Maybe not famous is the way to go then? Enter Jin Din Rou (www.jin-din-rou.net), which also has its fans. Like Din Tai Fung, the xiao long bao here have thin skins and an elegant, tear-drip droop when removed from their bamboo steamer basket nest. However, the soup has more of a soy sauce taste. Jin Din Rou is also from Taiwan, though it has more branches in Japan then it does there. The main branch in Ebisu is very swish — a nice date spot. Or maybe not, as XLB are notoriously tricky to eat without making a mess.
There are basically two ways to eat XLB: The way you eat them and the way you want your dinner companions to eat them. Just kidding! That would be mean. There is the safe way (first nibbling a little hole and sucking out the juice) and the dangerous way (popping the whole thing in your mouth). The dangerous way can result in hot sprays of soup scalding your mouth. My Shanghai friend assures me that either way is fine. By all means, use a spoon.
Finally, one would expect Yokohama Chinatown to deliver on XLB, and a colleague tells me that Shanghai Yoen Shoronpo-kan (166 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama; 045-212-5087; www.shanghaiyoen.co.jp) most definitely does.
Even more dumplings
Mastered xiao long bao? Sheng jian bao (called yaki-shoronpo in Japan), another Shanghai dumpling, are even harder to eat. These pan-fried buns, filled with even more meat and soup, have a thicker, chewier, bread-like shell, topped with sesame seeds and scallions. They are definitely worth the trouble. Try them at Yong Xiang Sheng Jian Guan (City Hotel 1F, 1-29-2 Nishi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-6914-1566; www.ei-show.com) in Tokyo’s unofficial Chinatown, the north side of Ikebukuro; or at Wang Fu Jing (191-24 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama; 045-641-1595; www.wangfujing.co.jp) in Yokohama Chinatown.
Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.