Zhou Qiang is the second generation at Jia Jia Tangbao
, which grew from a six-square-metre-shop in the 1980s to a requisite stop on many a modern tourist itinerary. Though he came into the business late, he now says he can tell whether a man or a woman made a particular soup dumpling by sight (women are more nimble and wrap better), and that his training is simple: a three-minute talk. ‘In three minutes, I can explain how to make my xiaolong
. But it’ll take someone six months to understand what I’m saying.’
The unfailingly affable Zhou is still behind the counter at the flagship store on many weekends. On a fall weekday, over dumplings at Ling Long Fang, another soup dumpling chain also in the family, he tells the story behind one of the city’s best-known dumplings.
‘How long has it been now? Ah… 20-something years. 27? 28? My father’s cousin started this business in the 1980s... When they couldn’t find work, they decided to open a Shanghainese dim sum place, making steamed buns and other snacks. They had six square metres on Henan Lu, and they weren’t successful at first. Eventually, their xiaolong got better and better, and they stopped making the other dim sum. Customers learned about them by word of mouth for the first 10 years or so. In the 1990s, famous stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, like Ling Yilian, started coming to the Mainland, going around to places to eat, and then Jia Jia Tangbao became even more well known than before.
‘That was the first store. It’s gone now. The second one was the store on Huanghe Lu. The original family didn’t have a son, so I came in about 10 years ago.
I try our competitors’ xiaolongs almost every week. If someone says they are good, I’ll go to their stores, buy their uncooked xiaolong, and then bring them back here to steam, right next to my own. That’s the only way to really tell. I’ve tried about all of them.
‘The ideal soup dumpling… it must have thin skin, a lot of soup, it shouldn’t break, the top should be small, and when you lift it up with your chopsticks, the bottom of the xiaolong should sag. The soup shouldn’t be oily -- it’s supposed to be fragrant.
‘The crab dumplings really represent Jia Jia. If we’re talking about just the filling of the pork ones, there are some places that are similar to ours. But for crab? There’s not one place that can match us. We stir-fry our crab meat in soybean oil, not pork lard, which obscures the taste of the crab. Some other places, they cook crabs in pork lard at low heat until the crab flavours the lard, and then they just use the lard to flavour the filling.
‘We serve the crab dumplings all year. But they are best eaten now [between mid-Autumn festival and December], when the crabs have more roe. In March and April, the crabs are mating, and we have to add more seasoning to the crab meat to compensate.'