Your Essential Guide to the World of Chinese Dumplings

By Sophie Steiner, June 1, 2024

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The wonderful world of Chinese dumplings is as vast and varied as the country itself, so it’s no surprise that to new entrants (and experts alike!) it’s no easy feat to navigate. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

From innumerable shapes and folds to limitless fillings and wrappers, we’ve put together your essential dumpling guide for all things boiled, steamed and fried.

Xiao Long Bao | 小笼包 | Soup Dumplings

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

If you’ve lived in Shanghai for more than five minutes, you’ve heard of the gloriousness that is xiao long bao.

Undeniably one of Shanghai’s most globally recognized dishes, xiao long bao are mouthful-sized pockets of joy filled to the brim with warming soup (made from melted pork aspic jelly) and (most commonly) a sweet minced pork meatball. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

However, what most people don’t know is that xiao long bao actually don’t originate within Shanghai city proper; instead, they come from a small suburb on the outskirts of Shanghai called Nanxiang. 

READ MORE: Shanghai Day Trip: Nanxiang, Home of the Xiaolongbao

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Semantics aside, the outstretched arm of the dumpling’s emanating steam wafts satisfyingly off their piled high bamboo baskets, pulling diners inside dumpling shops across the city at all hours of the day.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The dumpling skins themselves range from so-thin-it’s-nearly-translucent to pudgy and thick, with each soupy morsel best enjoyed dunked in enough chili oil and vinegar to sink a ship. 

The key is in the pleating, with each proper xiao long bao having exactly 18 folds, pinched together at the top.

Mi Mian Hui Xin, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A good rule of thumb for xiao long bao consumption is the droopier the better; each dumpling should sag like a water balloon ready to explode on impact, releasing a tidal wave of porky goodness that will have you begging for more long after your belly is full.

Yang Yang Ti Mian, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Do note, there is definitely a right (and wrong) way to eat a xiao long bao. To avoid turning your tongue to sandpaper, we suggest the bite (the top off); blow (into the just bitten hole); dunk (in chili oil and vinegar); slurp; and gobble method. 

Where to get it:

  • Ling Long Fang 麟笼坊, 338 Zhapu Lu, 乍浦路338号

  • Jia Jia Tangbao 佳家汤包, 127 Huange Lu, 黄河路127号

  • Din Tai Fung, eight locations around Shanghai

  • Mi Mian Hui Xin (to try black sesame-filled xiao long bao), 1/F, 98 Wukang Lu, by Wuyuan Lu, 武康路98号1楼近五原路

  • Sui Tang Li (for upscale xiao long bao with Iberico pork), 2/F, The Middle House Residences, 366 Shi Men Yi Lu, by Wujiang Lu, 石门一路366号镛舍公寓式酒店二层近吴江路

  • Just about every corner noodle and dumpling shop across the city

Baozi | 包子 | Filled & Steamed Buns

The most common breakfast across all of China, baozi are found everywhere, from the backstreets of Shanghai to the hutongs of Beijing, from streetcorner windows to upscale Cantonese dim sum restaurants, and everything in between.

Char Siu Bao, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Famed for their steamed mantou bun exterior that dimples in its plushness, a baozi bite is akin to munching on a cloud... one that gives way to a molten center, ranging from sticky, sweet sesame paste; to savory pork and scallion; to Chinese chives with egg; to mushroom and firm tofu... the list goes on. 

Yili Baozi, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

While some may argue that baozi aren't, in fact, a dumpling (as their dough is fermented), for the sake of this article – and our steadfast affinity for them – we are making an executive decision to include them in this roundup. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Beloved for their diversity (in sweet to savory fillings), affordability (usually clocking in at RMB2-4 each), and convenience (perfect for an on-the-go snack), baozi are truly a powerhouse tummy filler, living up to their literal translation as a bag or package (of yumminess). 

Where to get it:

  • Babi Mantou 巴比馒头 – numerous locations across Shanghai 

  • Yili Baozi 伊丽包子, 3 Gao’an Lu, by Huaihai Lu, 高安路3号近淮海路

  • Xiangle Baozi Dian 襄乐包子店, 604 Changle Lu, by Xiangyang Lu, 长了路604号近襄阳路

Guotie | 锅贴 | Potstickers 

He Le Dian Xin Dian, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

With a name derived from the process for making these delectable parcels, the 'guo' in guotie stands for 'pot' and 'tie' means 'to stick.'

And, by the transitive property, guotie in Chinese amorously became known as its literal translation into English, potstickers.

At once crisped and steamed, the bottoms are fried in a large, shallow pot, while the tops sizzle to a chewable nibble.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Ayi Huang Guotie Dawang, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Commonly filled with soupy pork, these thicker-skinned dumplings are a delectable alternative to xiao long bao, best devoured when dipped in aromatic black vinegar laced with chili oil. 

Where to get it: 

  • He Le Dian Xin Dian 和乐点心店, 52 Xiangyang Bei Lu, by Changle Lu, 襄阳北路52号近长了路

  • Ayi Huang Guotie Dawang 黄阿姨锅贴大王, 174 Wanhangdu Lu by Xinzha Lu, 万航渡路174号近新闸路

  • Wonton, Potsticker and Congee 馄炖锅贴粥, 291 Yongjia Lu, by Jiashan Lu, 永嘉路291号近嘉善路

Sheng Jian Bao | 生煎包 | Pan-Fried Buns

Da Hu Chun, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Sitting snugly at the three-way cross-section of xiao long bao soup dumplings, pillowy mantou, and crispy-bottomed guotie, sheng jian bao are a Shanghai dumpling favorite for tourists and locals alike, the best of all three dumpling worlds amalgamated into one.  

Dong Tai Xiang, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Dong Tai Xiang, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Made with a leavened dough, they are fluffy and filled with balls of loosely compacted fatty pork and soup. 

The bottoms are completely coated in sesame seeds to protect the shell from the oil and heat of the skillet, resulting in a perfectly light and crispy bite.

Where to get it:

  • Dong Tai Xiang 东泰祥生煎馆, 188 Chongqing Bei Lu, 重庆北路188号

  • Da Hu Chun 大壶春, 89 Yunnan Nan Lu, 云南南路89号

  • Yang’s Dumplings – numerous locations across Shanghai

Hundun | 混沌 | Wontons

A round-the-clock dumpling option, wontons have concurrently found their way everywhere from breakfast tables to late-night street corners.

These crescent-shaped, pork-stuffed dumplings are famously found at seemingly every food stand across the nation, each spot tweaking their recipe ever so slightly to cause a ripple in the die-hard fandom of one wonton shop over the next. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In Shanghai, wontons are most commonly filled with minced pork and shepherd’s purse (a flowering mustard green) slathered in a nutty sesame paste or swimming in a clear pork bone broth. 

Sanxi Chengdu Chaoshou Dandan Mian, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Chengdu’s rendition (known colloquially as hong you chao shou 红油抄手) is presented atop glistening chili oil, the steam from the flash-boiled wonton skins mingling with the sauce and coating each mouthful in a bath of silky chili oil, hot dried chilies, sweet soy sauce, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. 

READ MORE: How to Eat Your Way Through Chengdu

Wei Xiang Zhai, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Savored in soup, dry (aka gan ban 干拌) tossed in all manner of sauces, and even fried, you can’t go wrong when you wonton.  

Where to get it: 

  • Er Guang Hundun 耳光馄饨, 109 Huang Jiaque Lu, 黄家阙路109号

  • Sanxi Chengdu Chaoshou Dandan Mian 三喜成都抄手担担面, #102,195 Fengxian Lu, by Shimen Er Lu, 奉贤路195号1楼102, 近石门二路

  • Din Tai Fung, eight locations around Shanghai

  • Wei Xiang Zhai 味香斋,14 Yandang Lu, by Huaihai Lu, 雁荡路14号近淮海中路

Jiaozi | 饺子 | Dumplings

Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

An umbrella term for filled, crimped and sealed dumplings, jiaozi can be cooked in all manner of methods: steamed (zheng jiao 蒸饺); boiled (shui jiao 水饺); pan-fried (jian jiao 煎饺); deep-fried (zha jiao 炸饺子); or served in a bowl of soup (tang jiao 汤饺).

There are even egg jiaozi (known as dan jiao 蛋饺), where the wrapper is made of a thin slice of cooked egg that is folded and steamed as if it were dough. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The first two varieties are the most common  particularly in Northern China, where dumplings are a year-round staple of Dongbei cuisine  but jiaozi iterations can be easily spotted in nearly every province in the country. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Jiaozi across China (and all of Asia, really) can be folded in an infinite number of ways – from a pinched-edge fold to a half moon, from a silver ingot shape to the four-pleated star – with a multitude of fillings options, equally as varied. 

Where to get it: 

  • Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King 东北四季饺子王, 379 Xikang Lu, 西康路379号

  • Just about any dumpling or noodle house across the nation

Shao Mai | 烧卖 | Siu Mai

 Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Shao mai (or siu mai in Cantonese) are cylindrical in shape, encased within a thin wrapper, the top of which is left open and garnished with crab roe or shiitake mushroom when prepared in the Cantonese style.

Sometimes with a gingery taste, shao mai can also be flavored with rice wine, sesame oil, scallions or bamboo shoots. 

Yang Yang Ti Mian, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

These ruffle-edged, twisted-at-the-neck dumplings can be found perched in steamer baskets around Shanghai, along with other interpretations filled with anything from minced pork and rice, to shrimp with pork meatballs (most commonly found on Cantonese dim sum tables), to salted egg yolk. 

Leshan Shao Mai, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A popular alternative, the Leshan shao mai are unlike the Cantonese fare touted at dim sum stands in Southeast China.

Instead, stacks on stacks of Leshan shaomai are swollen and bulbous from a ground pork and scallion center, then pinched and twisted at the top, the feathery stratum of pleats flowering open, carnation like, while being steamed. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Coveted for their skirted head, each thin ruffle adds an added layer of chew that sops up extra flavor from a quick swim in aged vinegar lined with chili oil. 

Where to get it: 

  • Yang Yang Ti Mian (样样体面), 20 Bao'an Branch Road, Sichuan Bei Lu, by Ouyang Lu, 四川北路街道宝安支路20号, 近欧阳路.

  • Feng Yuan Xuan Yue Shi Cha Lou丰圆轩粤式茶楼, 3/F, 1868 Gonghe Xin Lu, 共和新路1868号

Har Gao (Xia Jiao) | 虾饺 | Shrimp Dumpling

Yuan You Tao, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The quintessential dim sum dish, steamed har gow shrimp dumplings are delicately flavored with garlic and sesame.

They should contain at least two whole shrimps within a near-translucent wheat starch wrapping, with seven to ten elegant pleats at the joint. 

DSC00794.jpgYi Long, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Har gow are said to be exceedingly difficult to make, the benchmark by which the skill of a dim sum chef can be judged.

Where to get it:

  • Lei Garden 利苑, #401, 999 Huaihai Zhong Lu, by Shanxi Nan Lu, 淮海中路999号环贸广场L4-401近陕西南路

  • Yi Long, 5/F, 20 Donghu Lu, by Huaihai Zhong Lu 东湖路20号5楼, 近淮海中路

  • Yuan You Tao (园有桃), 167 Xinle Lu, by Donghu Lu, 新乐路167号, 近东湖路

Tang Yuan | 汤圆 

Lida Tangyuan Hundun, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A popular Chinese dessert that is typically eaten during Mid-Autumn Festival, tang yuan are gumball-sized glutinous rice balls stuffed with all manner of black sesame paste, sweetened lotus paste, red bean, and the like.

READ MORE: Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About Mid-Autumn Festival

Often scooped into a demurely sweetened cold soup of sorts, tang yuan are an ideal option for cooling your mouth down after a spicy meal. 

Where to get it:

  • Lida Tangyuan Hundun 利达汤圆馄饨, 8 Chuangong Lu, 川公路8号

  • Si Xin Tangyuan Da Wang 四新汤圆大王, 1908 Sichuan Bei Lu, 四川北路1908号

Zongzi | 粽子

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Another rice-based dumpling, the zongzi (粽子) is a triangle-shaped sticky, glutinous steamed rice pocket that floods every Chinese city around Dragon Boat Festival.

READ MORE: Explainer: The Story Behind Dragon Boat Festival

Expertly folded in bamboo leaves for steaming, zongzi are stuffed with glutinous rice, egg yolk, pork and other goodies, then wrapped with thin strips of pliable straw. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The fat from the meat melts into the rice, creating a thick, gooey texture and hearty flavor throughout. 

More often filled with savory ingredients, sweet options packed with red bean, red dates, black sesame, or a mix are also worth a sample. 

One of these bad boys will set you back only RMB4-6 and will keep you full for hours.

Where to get it: 

  • Zhujiajiao Water Town

  • Lufang Rice Dumpling King 璐坊粽王, 488 Fuxing Zhong Lu, 复兴中路488号

Momo | 馍馍

Yak & Yeti, Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

With thicker skins than their Shanghainese wonton counterparts, Tibetan-style momo tend to be rounder in shape, conventionally filled with either chicken or pork.

At times, yeast or baking soda are added for a doughier texture, allowing the dumplings to hold their shape when dipped in a variety of sauces – tomato chutney, sesame sauce, achar, or even broths.

Most often steamed, momo can also be pan- or deep-fried. 

Where to get it: 

  • Yak & Yeti, 97 Xiangyang Lu, by Changle Lu 襄阳路97号, 近长乐路

  • Nepali Kitchen, 819 Julu Lu, by Fumin Lu 巨鹿路819弄4号,近富民路

  • Newa, D103, 850 Xikang Lu, by Haifang Lu 西康路850号D103室, 近海防路


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