Smothered By MSG: Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Restaurant

Yes, it does seem like they put THAT MUCH msg into every one of their dishes. How much is THAT MUCH?


Exhibit A: The hot and sour soup.

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My wife and I were not expecting much. We have been searching for the perfect bowl of hot and sour soup for the better part of 15 years now and we have never even come close to finding that perfect amalgamation of  pure sourness, straight spiciness, just-right thickness, and satisfying toothsomeness of ingredients.

Having a fair amount of experience with the genre, I knew to ask for our order to be extra sour and extra spicy.

When our soup came to our table, I could immediately tell that the kitchen amped up the sourness and spiciness of our order. I could smell the extra dose of black vinegar 10 tables away and I could see that the surface of our soup was spiked with an unnatural amount of red chill oil.The soup was definitely spicy enough; it’s just too bad that the spiciness was pretty one-note. There was only the flavour of the chili-oil and not much else. I expected the spicy flavours of white pepper powder, but they were nowhere to be found. And they shouldn’t have used black vinegar to enhance the sourness. Black vinegar is way too flavourful. I was look for straight sourness; I didn’t want the extra sets of aromas that came with black vinegar. To add insult to injury, I could taste an overwhelming ‘sweetness’ from the soup that came not from sugar, but from the false-umami-inducing substance known as monosodium glutamate.

There was way too much MSG in the soup. What started out as almost-but-not-quite acceptable hour-and-sour soup turned into an unpleasant flood of savoury-sweetness.

I don’t get it. Why put MSG in a hot and sour soup? Hot and sour soup should already be flavourful enough with its spiciness and sourness. There is no reason whatsoever to add MSG to the soup unless you know beforehand that the soup is inferior flavour-wise. If you know that the soup is lacking in flavours, why not enhance the base flavours themselves? Why would anyone anywhere ever think that overpowering the base flavours with MSG would be a good idea.

They’re probably just lazy.

Lazy enough to add a whole bunch more MSG to the stir-fried Shanghai style thick noodles.

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Savoury-sweet; sweet-sweet; thirst-inducing sweet; why-did-we-order-this-dish-sweet. The MSG sweetness was so prominent and so showoff-ey that we abandoned the dish before getting through a quarter of it. We wanted to like the dish. The texture of the noodles was nice and the overall oiliness/greasiness was well controlled, but the MSG was a total and complete turnoff.

I could be imagining things, but it seemed like they also added MSG to the filling of their XLB.

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Besides the distinct and unmistakable sweetness of the MSG, I also detected another rare, distinct, and unpleasant flavour in the XLB. I tasted ‘dough water’. When the juices first squirted out of the soup buns as I bit into them, I felt like my taste buds were dipped into a pot of clouded water recently used to boil dumplings. The first thing that came to my mind was to spit the juices out. But I didn’t. I did the noble thing and swallowed. I swallowed so I could move on to experience the meat filling.

I should have ejected the whole miniature bun when I had the chance. The meat filling was   dry and powdery. It was totally not worth swallowing the dough water for.

To be fair, the XLB was in no way a complete fail(ure). The skin was enjoyable thin. It stood up to my clumsy, left-handed chopstick prods while easily allowing my teeth to cut through them with the slightest of exerted force.

But the MSG.

If you ask me a month from now what I remembered about my meal at Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Restaurant, I will tell you that I was smothered with MSG. I will not remember anything else. Actually, it’s not that I won’t remember anything else -I love food; I have a a whole memory palace dedicated to food memories. It’s more of a case of my choosing not to store any information about this meal in my mind other than the MSG . I don’t ever want to accidentally visit the restaurant again because of some favourable memory markers of its food that I have placed in my memory palace.


Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Restaurant 上海九鼎 on Urbanspoon

2 thoughts on “Smothered By MSG: Shanghai Xiao Long Bao Restaurant

  1. It is very unfortunate that you could taste a lot of msg in their dishes. It sounds like you got hit by an MSG bomb at the first bite, then everything else tasted MSG. Really hope your taste buds are okay… I however could actually taste a lot of distinctive flavours in different dishes, and i was quite impressed with most of them. I went there because my Shanghainese friend recommended it to me. I ended up going back the same week because their buns were better than any xlb that i had ever tasted. If you are calling them lazy, do you know that cooking is not just about flavouring, it’s about different techniques: knife skills, heat and timing, presentation, everything counts.

    Just a guy who loves cooking and tasting food. 🙂

    1. I completely agree with you. Food is not only about flavours. All of the skills and techniques you mentioned contribute to make the final product. But if the final product taste like MSG, that is all that I will remember of it. Besides, the skills and techniques required to produce the items that I ordered are rather rudimentary; they are probably a requirement for anyone wishing to work in the kitchen of a Shanghainese/Chinese restaurant. It’s not like I ordered a dish requiring alternating layers of continuous, gossamer-thin tofu and equally-thin fork-tender braised bacon both sliced unbroken from five-inch-wide cubes.

      I have tried a lot of XLBs during my lifelong career as a glutton. I’ve had them in countless restaurants in Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, the San Gabriel Valley, Flushing, Scarborough, Richmond Hill, Richmond, Vancouver, and a lot of other cities with pretty-good XLB restaurants. The version I had at Shanghai XLB does not even come close to being good in my opinion. I think the dumpling skin was more than acceptable, but I liked neither their doughy soup nor their meat filling.

      I think people are often susceptible to the fallacy of the native eater. Just because someone from Shanghai says that a certain Shanghainese restaurant is good, it doesn’t mean that it really is good. What is the population of Shanghai? 15 million? 20 million? Are you sure that every single one of them is as picky a diner as you are? Are you sure that most of them have tried as many versions of XLB as a XLB-loving foodie from, say, Shenzhen?

      I have no doubt that you trust your friend’s taste in food. He might be a judge for the Michelin guide for all I know. But I believe my experiences have qualified me as an apt judge of good XLB, hot n’ sour soup, and Shanghai thick fried noodles. I have actually had a tiny bit of personal involvement with the restaurant business in Shanghai. I can tell you from first hand experience that the chefs there are plenty generous when it comes to employing MSG as a “technique” from their bag of cooking tricks.

      …Please forgive me if I sound harsh. That is not my intention.

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