James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Mission: Shanghai Soup Dumpling

Mission: Shanghai Soup Dumpling

Shen jian bao in Shanghai

Overnight layovers are one of travel’s trickier challenges to master. The key to making the most of those few rushed waking hours on the other side of the world? You need a mission.

Ideally, your mission is simple and achievable. On a recent 18-hour layover, my mission was breakfast.

At home in Los Angeles, I buy sheng jian bao by the box from a local Chinese food court and snack on them cold, plucking them one by one from the refrigerator. I grew up with them, despite being thousands of miles away from the city where they’re traditionally sold on street corners. Now, I had a rare slice of time to enjoy sheng jian bao the way they were meant to be enjoyed—for breakfast, in Shanghai.

It’s an understatement to call them pan-fried pork buns, which is how they often appear on menus. Sheng jian bao are the more delicious, less internationally famous, just as soup-filled sibling of xiao long bao, the tiny soup dumplings that Shanghai is also known for. Each bao is about the size of a child’s fist, with a crispy golden crust on the bottom and a pillowy white top sprinkled with scallions and sesame seeds. Inside is a juicy nugget of pork, savory and a touch sweet, and a thimble-sized sip of soup.

That tiny sip is decadent. Rich and flavorful—and filled with fat—it oozes out of the pork filling as the bao sizzles and steams in the pan. These days you can even find versions that come with a straw for slurping up the soup. But I wanted the classic.

My layover gave me just one breakfast, and one shot. Fortunately, I mentioned my quest to my taxi driver, who lit up. He was so passionate about sheng jian bao that he offered to drive me straight to his favorite restaurant, still open even as we approached midnight. His enthusiasm convinced me: this was the one. The mission, however, was breakfast. So he dropped me off at my hotel with walking directions.

I woke up the next morning, without a trace of jet lag, to find the city experiencing a very rare snowfall, the kind that makes the news. But I was on a mission. I set off into the cold.

A few years ago, my mom and I visited Shanghai together. We spent a steamy summer afternoon wandering through old neighborhoods, searching for the street where she grew up. Maybe it no longer exists, or maybe it’s just lost to us—but we didn’t find it. This time, as I cut through narrow courtyards and passed street vendors selling little chestnuts and big ladles of congee, I felt as if any of these streets could have been that street. I wouldn’t have known it, but I felt the warmth of possibility everywhere.

Finally, I turned a corner and found the sheng jian bao I had been looking for. They came with a large glass of sweet soy milk. I ate them all in 10 minutes.

Mission accomplished, I rushed back to the airport.

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