Xiaolongbao, those glorious steamed dumplings with a meat and soup filling, have migrated far beyond Shanghai and gained a cult following. Meanwhile, another obsession-worthy Shanghainese specialty has remained a local secret.
Shengjian bao, they call it here. Think of it as a fried version of xiaolongbao. Well, a bun, really. A soup bun that is pan-fried until the bottoms are just crisp and the sesame seeds and chives on top meld into the crunchy casing.
When I come to Shanghai I get my shengjian bao from two places. One is in the French Concession, a 3-minute walk from where i usually stay. The baozi aren't spectacular, but they're great for a cheap lunch or hunger fix. The other is the venerable and endearingly misspelled Yang's Fry-Dumpling, just north of People's Square and right across the street from another cheap-eats institution. If you eat shengjian bao only once in Shanghai (or twice, or thrice), do so at Yang's.
Chowing down on shengjian bao is trickier than on xiaolongbao. First,the thick crunchy casing is such a good insulator that the soup is still piping hot 10 minutes after you sit down. Burnt tongues are common, but worth dealing with.
Second, each bao is about the size of a small plum, making it impossible to eat in a single bite. This means squirtage is inevitable, at least for a non-local. With practice, or luck, the soup will squirt into the boundaries of your plate instead of at the person across from you. (The woman with the baby will appreciate this.) Again, just concentrate; these are easy hurdles. Because the mouthfuls of crunchy bun and soupy pork goodness to come will be very, very satisfying.
Did I mention a plate of four shengjian bao costs about 60 US cents?
Yang's Fry-Dumpling 97 Huanghe Lu Shanghai