Gochugaru Girl watched the film Shanghai Calling again recently.
It definitely was more fun watching it after our visit to the city in October.
One of my favourite scenes is when Sam and his friend each bite into a large dumpling. Sam asks his friend what the filling is made of and his friend replies: snake.
Of course it’s not snake, his friend reveals later. It’s pork.
When in Shanghai, it is de rigueur to go hunting for xiao long bao. Xiaolong are the small bamboo baskets in which these dumplings are traditionally steamed and served.
As we were visiting Yu Garden, we were directed to this establishment: Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant/ 南翔饅頭店/ Nánxiáng Mántóu Diàn.
As all the guidebooks will tell you, this restaurant was established in 1900 in Nanxiang, a town around 20 kilometers away from downtown Shanghai. Its main restaurant is now located in the Yu Garden Bazaar, which is crowded and noisy, with a mixture of local Chinese people and tourists. It is actually what a foreigner imagines Chinatown should look like: tea houses, dumpling stands, dried fruit and preserved meat stalls, herbal medicine halls, and souvenir shops selling red packets, chopsticks, tea, T-shirts, toys, gold jewellery and slippers. It has the obligatory Starbucks Coffee, full of Westerners when I looked in.
When I asked our Man in Shanghai, TK, for the address of the shop, he said there was no need, “Just look for the queue and join it”. Indeed, there is only one shop for which you need to queue and this is it. The system work like this: a tall stack of around 10 bamboo baskets, each containing 22 dumplings, is steamed for the requisite time. When this stack is ready, another stack takes its place. The first 10 or so people in the queue get their dumplings, served from a hatch at the front.
It was difficult to see precisely what was going on inside the kitchen as the windows were all steamed up. I imagine there must be more than one stack being steamed at the same time, as some people buy more than 1 portion (22 dumplings). In any case, if the first person buys 10 portions and the second person does the same, the next 8 people will just have to wait until the next batches of dumplings are ready. Hence the long queue.
I love xiao long bao and was very excited when these were handed to me.
However, I am going to be extremely honest and say that despite its pedigree, these were not very nice dumplings. The skin was thick and the filling was dry and a bit too strong in flavour. The initial plan was to have 7 dumplings each (8 for the one who needed it most) but halfway through eating I just lost the will to go on. Mr Gochugaru and Junior 1 were very supportive and ate up the remainder (we are not allowed to throw away food in our family).
I don’t regret trying it. It was fun queuing with everyone else and remembering that people’s food opinions are very subjective. Next time I am in Shanghai I am going to consult the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index. I am really appreciative of such endeavors which pave the way for other diners.
Around the corner from Yu Garden and the bazaar, you can find a traditional food street. You know when people say things like, “I just love street food. That’s the only way to get the authentic taste”? Hmm…the entrance to this street food market is flanked by a few stinky tofu/ 臭豆腐/ chòu dòufu stalls. In fact, ‘stinky’ does it a disservice because its smell surpasses this description.
So by the time you reach this fried dumpling stall (photo below) you have lost all your appetite to eat. The surrounding was filthy too, with waste food left in open baskets. There were many people eating food from the stalls so I don’t think it will kill you to try the dishes being sold, but if you only have 4 days in Shanghai, it might not be wise to take such risks.
Where then, would you eat? You will not go hungry in Shanghai as there are cafés and restaurants in every corner, and to suit every budget. I will write brief descriptions of a few restaurants we tried in a future post.