Thursday, March 26, 2009

Highlight #160: the home of the original soup buns - Nanxiang Mantou Dian (Shanghai)

No matter how I prepare, I am never quite ready for the amount of people in Shanghai. Once upon a time, when I lived in the even more populous city of Chongqing, having people piled on top of me was normal, but now, I get sick of the pushing and shoving very quickly. This is not to say that everywhere in Shanghai is like that. There are just certain places, the places I generally try to avoid, where the crowd is simply unavoidable. One of these places is the old temple at Yuyuan, where Nanxiang, the famed soup bun place is situated.

Said to be where these delectable things originated, the hundred plus year old place draws lines like you wouldn't believe day in day out in an area already saturated with people (the old temple area is made into a pedestrian street eating destination).
On the first floor, Nanxiang has a takeout window, where most people get their soup dumplings. Next to the hundreds lined up to approach the window are these lucky ones who have already gotten their prize. Imagine the agony of having to wait next to them.
For those too weak to suffer the long line, there are plenty of Nanxiang wannabes nearby, selling everything from the classic soup-filled dumplings to the dramatic "large bao," from which you use a straw to suck out the juice. Truth be told, I personally feel that these are more for the drama than the taste as the soup to dough balance is way off and the dough is made thicker to hold in the juices.
Call me an elitist, but I'd rather pay double the price than to suffer the line. I am sure plenty of others would have done the same, had they know that they can simply head up to the second floor for table service. The service is really not much better up here and one must share the communal tables with lots of people, but still. Going as a party of one has its advantages too. As long as there is a stool, I am in.

As you can see, the bun skin is not as thin here as the more southern style soup buns from Hong Kong or Taiwan, but that's the intention. These are still supposed to taste a bit like the texture of mantou (unfilled buns), which is in the Nanxiang name. What's really great about these is the flavor of the soup inside. If you don't know what pork tastes like, you will not forget after tasting this. It's intensely porky and umami, in the way that pork, the white meat, is not. There is not an overwhelming amount of soup, but just enough to plump up the dough skin and coat the mouth with a thin layer of lard.

As satisfying as they are, I do feel that the long lines everyday may have caused the quality to slip a bit over the years. Or maybe my memory has painted the Nanxiang soup bun of some years ago in rosier colors. Regardless, this is probably still among the best that one can ever eat.

In some ways, I have come to prefer the thinner skinned version sold by Din Tai Feng from Taiwan, which also has a branch in Shanghai. But if I am lucky, I'll get to try another classic version from the famed Wang Jia Sha during my Shanghai stay before declaring that preference affirmatively.

1 comment:

jimmy said...

man, those look awesome! very cool