Ode to Xiao Long Bao

(and a plug for following your international friends around)


The perks of choosing a destination based on where your friends live in the world…are many.  The greatest to me has always been a newfound ability to be a slacker.  Yep, a travel slacker!  This means letting go of the planning and/or researching a destination, pre-arrival . They live there…they know best, right?! The result of this approach is you get on a plane (in my case, from Thailand) and have little idea of what you’re walking off that plane into.

Now I’m a huge fan of researching a destination’s must-dos ahead of time—you have a great idea going in of what you “can’t miss.” The worst thing would be…I don’t know…flying 20+ hours to say…China? and then having to spend precious time there figuring out how to get around and what you want to see/do/eat. Yet the inherent downside of this initial planning is you have some baseline expectations, of what you might experience, of what sights to seek, what food to track down.

This is the beauty of just “showing up.” When your local friends can take away the travel learning curve, but you didn’t have to put in an ounce of preparation, the world is your oyster and they’ve handed you the pearl. I still believe some of the best trips I’ve had were in part because of initial no or low expectations. Suddenly, everything is new and more exciting and WAY better than what you could possibly be doing elsewhere!  Maybe it’s because you’re not living with a “fear of missing out,” but instead enjoying each moment and the joys of travel that unfold before you.   You live each day relaxed with the comfort that your friends will take you where you need to go, and not stressing about checking boxes from a guidebook or figuring out transportation systems. My trip to China didn’t follow this exactly, but I did have the total luxury of having a built-in city expert, cultural ambassador, translator, and of course, a free place to rest my head. Plus my friends know me and know my priorities *cough, food*. Worrying down, fun up.

It turns out one of the many surprises China had in store for me is something I didn’t know about or expect to experience, but to this day I literally dream about. (Not joking, I have dreams of dumplings to this day!) I’m talking about Shanghai’s contribution to the world (okay, one of them): the beautiful, perfect, flawless, insatiably irresistible xiao long bao, or soup dumpling. Guys, these little balls of hot gooey goodness DID change my life. I’m not going to undersell it.


Do you see what I see?! Regular and oversized XLB.

So, let’s talk about it. What exactly is a xiao long bao, and why is it so alluring? Well, take a generic love for the texture and flavor of most any dumpling to begin with, and then take it to a completely new level. You mean, I hold it carefully between my chopsticks, take a small bite from any side, suck out the liquid soupy deliciousness, and THEN I get to eat it? They even have giant xiao long bao, from which you literally drink the soup in a straw that sticks out of the top of an oversized dumpling. DOES IT GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS?!

Part of the draw was my introduction to the world of real Chinese dumplings, at a friend’s favorite spot in Old Town Shanghai (Yuyuan.) This is where I got my first sip and bite, and from there it was a slippery slope of addiction that could not be satiated.

For the next two weeks, any time I found myself wandering Shanghai by myself while my friends were teaching, it was not only an obsession but I have to admit, a bit of a culinary crutch, as they could be found on any street corner and I could order with very little (if any) knowledge of Mandarin. If all else failed, I could point and pull out some cash and know what I was getting one of the best meals my yuan–or any currency–can buy!

Of course, being the part time traveler that I am, I have been on a mission to find any such replica that even scratches the surface of xiao long bao glory here in the States…the oversized XLB is yet to be found, and the normal bao I’ve encountered (even locally, God bless little Santa Barbara) in San Francisco or LA have fallen very short of the real deal, no matter how much they seemingly look like the ones I ate daily in China.

We just can’t have it all, people. Until the day I can teleport to Shanghai for lunch, I’ll have to settle with the adventure that is trying to find an authentic spot here, and the memories of having tasted such a elegant, succulent masterpiece at all.

I love XLB so much, I am willing to post this terribly embarrassing photo of myself enjoying it faaaar too much.

Camden’s ‘Welcome to China’ pack for me! (Includes tea caddy, tissues for bathroom (a must in China), official guidebook, translator, metro card, unofficial guidebook, her contact info and CHINESE CELL PHONE. Best hostess EVER.


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  1. Loooooove the blog! And love your writing style!!!

    As far as xiao long bao in Los Angeles, Din Tai Fung is your best bet. Check it out when you get back home! http://www.dintaifungusa.com/

    • Thank youuuu, Cami! Huge thanks for being my first comment, also! We can be blog buddies now!
      Ps soooo trying the XLB in LA recommendation ASAP in January. Mmmmmm.

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