SHENGJIAN, a pan-fried dumpling, is a Shanghainese snack to the core. It’s a must-eat for most tourists traveling to Shanghai and a quintessential part of the city’s culture.
But shengjian is also a highly debated food, from its name to the recipe and even the way of ordering at restaurants raising questions and igniting robust discussion.
For starters, shengjian is also called shengjian mantou. Mantou actually refers to plain steamed buns without filling in northern China while baozi is a bun with fillings. But in Shanghai, rou mantou means steamed meat buns and cai mantou means the vegetable version.
Because shengjian is much smaller than typical baozi, it’s actually translated into English as dumpling like xiaolongbao (soup dumplings.)
Shengjian was created as a dim sum served in tea houses over 100 years ago and was also sold by laohu zao, or tiger’s kitchen, which supplied hot water for Shanghainese from the 1870s to the 1990s.
The skin of shengjian is made of unleavened, leavened or semi-leavened dough. The leavened wrapper is soft and thick, the unleavened skin is similar to steamed dumpling but softer, while the semi-leavened has a texture in between.
With or without soup is also a topic for shengjian debate.
The soup in shengjian is made of pork skin, which cools down to a jelly-like form that can be mixed in the filling.
After it’s pan-fried, the jelly would melt into a spoonful of soup. There are two schools when it comes to pan frying the dumplings.
The Yangzhou school places the opening at the bottom while the Shanghai style goes the other way around.
Other than the wrapper and filling, the chopped scallion and toasted sesame seeds that are topped on the shengjian before it’s out of the pot are essential.
And the best part of the shengjian? It’s the crunchy wrapper that has soaked up the delicious juice from the filling.
Curry beef soup with lots of coriander is considered the perfect companion for a hot, sizzling shengjian.
How many pieces are in yiliang shengjian?
Shengjian is not ordered by number or plate, but by liang in most restaurants — the Chinese measuring unit that’s equal to 50 grams.
But each liang includes about four shengjian, which is definitely more than 50 grams, and it sometimes causes confusion.
In 2015, a foreigner who was buying shengjian in Shanghai did the math and ordered 10 liang as he thought that’s the total weight of the food. But he was served 40 shengjian.
According to historians, the unit of liang refers to the weight of the dumpling wrapper instead of the final product. No matter it’s shengjian or xiaolongbao, each liang weighs about 250 grams of actual cooked food.
This summer, the prominent shengjian chain Yang’s Dumpling created a seasonal black shengjian with a filling of fish flavored with tengjiao, a quite numbing green Sichuan peppercorn to imitate the classic tengjiao fish dish.
The black skin is the result of squid ink mixed in the dough.
This is not the first time a black shengjian has captured the attention of the city’s dining scene.
When My Fry Way Dumpling opened in 2014, their signature was a black shengjian with cod and cheese filling.
Established in 1994, Yang’s Dumpling is the most accessible shengjian with more than 100 shops in and outside Shanghai.
They operate central kitchens and deliver the frozen ingredients every day to its outlets. It was originally named Yang’s Fry-Dumpling.
Shanghai locals have mixed opinions about Yang’s Dumpling.
The quality is very consistent, the shengjian sold at each outlet are the same size and flavor.
The two regular items on the menu are the plain pork shengjian and the shrimp shengjian.
In general, Yang’s Dumpling make large sized shengjian with more soup wrapped inside the chewier skin.
The soup made from pork skin is very rich as it thickens when cooled down.
Some people love the generous amount of soup in the dumplings, while others prefer the old fashioned, less soupy kind. The minced pork filling has a sweet flavor and is quite rich.
Their seasonal offerings are interesting.
In the past, they’ve done shepherd’s purse with pork which was praised for the light and fresh filling as well as the popular spicy crayfish.
Yang’s Dumpling also sells some soup dishes including curry beef soup, pork bone and vermicelli soup as well as hot and sour rice noodles.
Address: 2/F, 269 Wujiang Rd
Dong Tai Xiang
Another favorite shengjian place Dong Tai Xiang is known for its crunchy bottom of the wrapper.
The kitchen in the middle of the restaurant follows a modern protocol, the ratio of flour, water and yeast are strictly controlled and the shengjian makers are constantly weighing the wrappers to make sure they are 20 grams each. They use semi-leavened dough.
The dumplings contain some soup but not as much as Yang’s Dumpling while the filling is sweeter in taste.
The giant iron pan can fit as many as 100 shengjian in one batch. Black sesame seeds are sprinkled on top when the dumplings are served.
Only two options are available at Dong Tai Xiang, the plain pork shengjian and pork and shrimp shengjian. They say it’s the way to ensure quality and traditional flavor.
Cold noodle is a popular summertime special at Dong Tai Xiang. Their small shrimp wonton soup is delicious, but the wonton wrapper is a little thicker than average.
Address: 188 Chongqing Rd N.
Da Hu Chun
To a lot of Shanghai locals, Da Hu Chun is hands down the best shengjian brand because it serves the dumplings without soup.
Da Hu Chun was created by Tang Miaoquan in 1932, whose uncle was the creator of Luo Chun Ge, a shengjian shop that no longer exists.
Da Hun Chun uses fully leavened dough to make the shengjian wrapper, so the skin is soft and not sticky. After the dumplings are made, they are rested for at least 30 minutes to achieve the round and full shape.
The meat filling is dense and slightly sweet, and it’s easier to eat the shengjian without the soup bursting out suddenly.
Da Hu Chun’s pork clam (12 yuan/US$1.8 for four) and pork with foie gras (8 yuan each) shengjian are also quite unique.
The flagship store located in the Bund area is the most popular. Pork shengjian is priced at 7 yuan each liang, and they offer shengjian cooked and served in small pot for 40 yuan, which include an assorted flavors of four pork shengjian, four pork and shrimp shengjian and two pork clam shengjian.
Address: 136 Sichuan Rd M.