Cheap & Good

Cheap & Good: Sweet and juicy xiao long bao in Chinatown

The xiao long bao are steamed to order. PHOTO: YIP WAI YEE

There are plenty of good eats to be found at the sprawling Chinatown Complex Food Centre, but there is one stall there that I visit almost every time I go.

Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao's counter tops are stacked to the ceiling with bamboo steamers and standing behind the glass panel in the front is the boss, with furrowed brows, fully concentrating on the task at hand.

Ms Niu Min, 40, is making xiao long bao, or steamed pork dumplings, and the China native does not stop to take a break during the afternoon I am there. Her fingers are quick and nimble as she tirelessly works the dough, fills it with marinated minced pork and folds tiny pleats on top to seal the dumplings.

I order a portion ($6 for 10) from her husband, Mr Li Fengcai, and I stand back patiently to wait. As the xiao long bao here is always steamed to order, the wait can be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the demand.

Clearly, that has not deterred the long queue of patrons, as the stall sells more than 2,000 handmade xiao long bao every weekend.

The xiao long bao are steamed to order. PHOTO: YIP WAI YEE

Some customers have suggested that the stall owners steam a few extra baskets to move things along, but the couple, who come from China's Anhui province, refuse to do so.

Mr Li, 45, who learnt how to make the dumplings when he worked as a cook at a small Anhui eatery three decades ago, says: "Xiao long bao must be steamed and eaten immediately, otherwise the soup will dry up. Of course, we'll sell a lot more if we do it all beforehand, but they won't taste good, right?"


  • 02-135 Chinatown Complex Food Centre, 335 Smith Street, open: 11.30am to 9pm daily, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays

    Rating: 4/5 stars

My order of 10 comes in two separate baskets. Although they do not look as refined as the ones found in some Chinese restaurants, their robust flavour makes up for it.

Besides the juicy meat, which is encased in a smooth, ultra-thin skin wrapping, each dumpling is bursting with hot soup, which tastes slightly sweet. It is delicious when paired with black vinegar and pickled ginger, which the stall provides.

I am so eager to polish them all off at once that I scald my tongue .

While the stall's bestseller is the xiao long bao, it also offers crispy pot stickers ($6 for 10), which is made with pork and chives, as well as chilli oil and vinegar dumplings ($4.50 for 10), which have a good balance of heat and tartness.

Then, there are the noodle dishes (from $4), such as dried soyabean paste noodles and spicy dan dan mian, but I have yet to try any of them. Every time I tell myself I will sample a bowl of noodles, the xiao long bao call out to me.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline Sweet and juicy xiao long bao in Chinatown. Subscribe