The steamed dumpling known as xiao long bao, described so evocatively by Olivia Wu elsewhere on this website, is synonymous with Shanghai, and for generations of Shanghainese eating xiao long bao was synonymous with a visit to one particular establishment, the Nanxiang Mantou Dian (Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant). Here, in the historic Yu Garden area of Shanghai, in a second-floor dining room overlooking the nine-turn bridge and the mid-lake teahouse of blue willow China pattern fame, whole feasts are made from nothing more than stacks of dumpling-filled bamboo steamers, accompanied by small bowls of a thin soup.
According to local lore, xiao long bao were created by Huang Mingxian, in the Shanghai suburb of Nanxiang, around 1861. Huang owned a pastry shop and also hawked large steamed buns in a nearby classical garden. It was a competitive business, and Huang, with his pastry-making skills, came up with the delicate, thin skinned xiao long bao to distinguish his wares from the other vendors’, creating an instant sensation.
Their fame spread beyond the confines of Nanxiang, and in the year 1900, a relative of Huang’s named Wu Xiangsheng brought them to Shanghai, taking over an establishment named Changxing Lou. He perfected the delicacy, renamed the restaurant the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, and booming Shanghai introduced xiao long bao to the world.
On a cool, misty day in early April 1992, I had my first ever meal on Chinese soil – a brunch consisting of xiao long bao at the Nanxiang Mantou Dian. My host Daisy (she’s now my sister-in-law) decided that the quaint snack shop that had hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Fidel Castro was a suitable introduction to Shanghai, and it is testimony to her judgment that I have been xiao long bao-mad ever since. The timing of our visit there was fortunate, for when we attempted to return three weeks later we found it closed for an extensive remodeling and reconfiguring as a more tourist-oriented enterprise. The dining area was expanded from a single room to three on two upper floors, and a takeout window added on the ground floor.
The Nanxiang Mantou Dian is now owned by a holding company listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, and has added additional branches in Shanghai and more than a dozen franchises in other Asian countries. Xiao long bao connoisseurs will tell you that its dumplings no longer meet the gold standard the restaurant established, though smaller enterprises throughout Shanghai have risen to the challenge. Nonetheless, locals still revere the Nanxiang as the Mecca of xiao long bao and flock there to jockey for tables; the street-level takeout window, where the dumplings are still a proletarian $1.80 for sixteen dumplings, draws hour-long lines.
– Contributed by Gary Soup, a retired transportation planner with an abiding interest in Shanghai and its food stemming from his first visit and a xiaolongbao epiphany there in 1992. He keeps a blog at http://eatingchinese.blogspot.com and has contributed articles and photos to a number of on-line and print publications.
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