It’s not easy to turn a 6RMB basket of soup dumplings into a white Porsche, but that’s exactly what husband and wife duo Guo Jinlong and Yang Huiying have done. Their flagship store, a fairly classy-looking place for a dumpling shop, draws customers from all over the city to their leafy residential street in Putuo district every weekend. Or rather, their soup dumplings do.
Yang and Guo insist on cooking just two things at their shop, xiaolongbao and wontons. ‘Any more and you can’t focus! That’s no good,’ Guo says. Like most of the other shops in this article, they insist on the quality of their ingredients (a special cut of pork from a US joint venture farm, flour from the Shanghai Flour Factory) but pride themselves on keeping prices down. When you’re selling dumplings priced at about 1RMB each, getting to a position where you own a Porsche is no easy feat.
‘We started in 1994. I was working at a food department store and saw how well the xiaolongbao
were selling in Caojiadu, so I got a space and opened the shop. I hadn’t made xiaolong
before, and didn’t know how to make them very well. For the first eight months, we didn’t make one cent. We lost between 10,000-20,000RMB each month, and back then, that was a lot of money!
‘Through some connections, I was able to hire three cooks from Cheng Huang Miao. They were experts at making the skin, but they didn’t know anything about the filling. So I took a job at another xiaolong store to learn the process. Of course, they don’t tell you the recipes for the fillings.
‘After that, I just made batch after batch of fillings, a little more salt here, a little more huangjiu, Chinese yellow wine, there. I would make one batch, taste them, spit them out, drink some water, and try again. That’s how I found the right proportions.
‘When we finally got it right, so many people were queuing for our xiaolong that we couldn’t make them fast enough. This all happened in 1994. When we started, a steamer of xiaolong was nine mao, and it was a luxury, something your mum might treat you to for a special breakfast. Things might have changed in other places, but we haven’t changed much here. Our xiaolong are still 6RMB for six. We keep prices low for the locals. In our Nanjing Dong Lu shop, we charge only 9RMB. People drive out here on the weekends; there’s normally a half-hour wait.
‘Din Tai Fung – to me – is better than Cheng Huang Miao. They have a good environment and variety. But if we’re talking just about the texture and flavour? I don’t think theirs is better than ours.
‘In 1994, the best xiaolongbao were at Guyi Garden. But the skin was thick – really thick. Too thick. They haven’t really changed since then, but they are a state-owned company, you know? They can’t really progress. We’ve made progress: a thinner skin, better soup. We only use the clearest portion of the soup for our dumplings. After you cook and cool the soup, and it firms up, there’s fat on top and sediment on the bottom. We take off the fat and leave the sediment behind, so our soup is particularly clear and porky.
‘Our xiaolong are classic. Nowadays, people are making all kinds of xiaolong like spicy ones, or adding mushrooms to the filling. We’re protecting the classics and tradition to give Shanghainese the flavours of their childhood.’