Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shanghai: a guide to eating Nanxiang xiao long bao

The zig-zag bridge

We now reach one of the culinary climaxes of this trip, i.e., a visit to my favorite restaurant: the Nanxiang Steamed Dumpling shop inside the City God Temple (Cheng Huang Miao), which is so much more than a temple these days - it's actually a complex of shops and restaurants in really old buildings.  So, I have some protips to share about eating soup dumplings (xiao long bao) here.  First of all, go at an off hour; 10:30am or 11am are pretty good, but close to 12, you'll hit the crowds, and all the time you'll have to spend waiting will make the entire experience less fun.  Second, don't eat much breakfast before you go.  Third, when you walk through Cheng Huang Miao and get to the building in the middle that houses Nanxiang, you might notice that there are actually three very similar dumpling shop windows right next to each other.  Don't get distracted by the imitators.  Instead, continue along the building until you see the really long line of people jostling toward and around a window from which lots of steam is emanating.  Some people should be leaving the line with little paper trays of dumplings. 

Fourth tip: Don't bother getting in line.  The dumplings served upstairs in the sit-down restaurant are more expensive than the ones sold at the take-out window on the first floor, but the upstairs dumplings are also much better in terms of both ingredients and preparation.  So, walk around the back of the line until you see an entryway with stairs leading straight up.  The steps will politely, if somewhat incoherently, tell you that you're in the right place:

Fifth tip: after climbing the stairs, you'll have the option of either eating in a 2nd-floor dining room or in the 3rd-floor dining room.  The 3rd floor is also more expensive than the 2nd floor, and supposedly the dumplings are even better (apparently "you get what you pay for" is Nanxiang's mantra).  I've eaten in both the 2nd and 3rd floors, and even in the 1st floor sit-down area back when there used to be a 1st floor sit-down area (yes, I've made pilgrimages to this restaurant at least the past three times I've visited Shanghai).  This most recent time, we were in a group of seven and wouldn't have fit in the 2nd floor room, so we went to the 3rd floor; I'll admit this room is the most polished of them all.

Refinement is good.

Plus, you can walk to the back of the room and watch the dumplings being made!

After perusing the book-like menu for a while - menus in nice restaurants in China are like hard-cover books these days, with full-page pictures! - my parents found prix fixe menus that included not just a steamer of six xiao long bao per person, but also other dim sum-style snacks that looked really good.

We each ordered a 88RMB prix fixe, and soon the delights started arriving, family-style as always.  First up, some sort of triangular spring roll with with a savory tofu filling:

Tiny little zhong zi (for some reason Blogger doesn't like the photo and won't let me upload it), followed by steamed vegetable buns:

Crispy shrimp balls with soup filling.  Be careful when eating anything with a soup filling - it tends to be extremely hot!

And then the main attraction arrived: steamers of Nanxiang soup dumplings with pork-and-crab filling.

Here's how I recommend you savor these wonderful little packages.  First put a little bit of vinegar and a few shreds of ginger into your spoon, which you hold in your non-dominant hand.  Using chopsticks, carefully pick up a dumpling and hold it over the spoon.  Bite off a little bit of the dumpling skin and, very carefully, suck out the soup that is inside.  Then eat the rest of the dumpling, dipping in the vinegar/ginger.

Egg soup:

Dessert: red bean buns with sesame, and little curry pockets.

I'd highly recommend such a prix fixe menu because you can taste much more than just the xiao long bao, six of which are plenty.  It's essentially dim sum at its very best.