Chinese Buffet – Part 13: Darling Dumplings

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Going out to eat dumplings was a highlight of my visit to Shanghai. Although my pal Beth has been unable to stomach the taste of most Chinese cuisine during her pregnancy, the aversion has not affected her ability to toss back some steamed dumplings every few days. So that’s exactly what we did.

The first place we went for dumplings was Nan Xiang, a center-city shrine to the doughy little wonders. This restaurant is THE place to go to sample typical Shanghainese steamed buns. There are three floors, and the menu prices go up with each level. There’s also a take out window on the ground floor. We walked up one flight to the dining room that serves the cheapest menu.

Since this is a touristy spot, there can sometimes be a bit of a line, but we got lucky both times we visited, waiting no more than ten minutes for a table. Seating is done family style, to keep the hungry crowds moving through the place. We watched the restaurant staff making buns while we waited, and tried to chat with our neighbors at the table.

The dumplings usually come in pork and crab. But what makes this baozi particularly unique is that the meat is swimming in a little pool of liquid. Folks usually take a small bite out of the dumpling (known as xiaolongbao), suck the broth out, then eat the rest of the bun.

Beth taught me an alternative dumpling-eating strategy with one extra step. After taking the first bite to release the liquid…

…it can be easier (and less messy!) to first pour the broth into a spoon…
(which you will probably have to ask them to bring to your table)

…then sip the tasty soup up…

…before finishing the yummy dough ball — all at once or with a few bites. The dough is sticky so it usually stays fixed in the chopsticks quite well:

A trip to Nan Xiang is best paired with a walk across the Bridge of Nine Turnings and a visit to the neighboring Yu Gardens. A stroll through the beautiful grounds is a great way to work off your dumpling meal:

On another dumpling day excursion we also combined dining with sightseeing. We visited Din Tai Fung, a famous chain of dumpling restaurants that originated in Taiwan and now has outposts in several Asian cities and in Los Angeles.

This place is pricier and the wait longer (about 40 minutes), but the dumplings were still delicious. (I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to mess these things up?!) We were seated at a corner table for two — no folks to chat with this time:

I was happy to have the option to dip my dumplings in soy sauce and ginger at this restaurant. The traditional combination is vinegar and ginger, but I prefer the soy sauce, which you won’t find on the table at Nan Xiang. I also ordered a bit of fried rice and one larger bun, just to try something different. But it was basically just a ton more dough to chew through:

To walk off this meal, we strolled through the central stretch of Xintiandi, an open-air public space lined with a mixture of shops and restaurants. The area is well-known because of the shikumens that were renovated to create this old-meets-new development. We took a short spin through the Shikumen Open House, a recreation of a 1920’s era shikumen home. Like the hutongs in Beijing, efforts have been made to preserve the architectural history of these structures:

A history lesson on a full and happy tummy. Not a bad way to see the city.

Of course, I’m really craving a true Shanghainese dumpling as I write this…It is such a simple and perfect culinary creation:

Never again will I look at a Chinese dumpling the same way.

(Ya here that Mom and Dad?! When I get back home we’ve got to go in search of REAL dumplings, okay? No more of those fried ones from the take out menu. I’ve been converted and will attempt to convert you as well :)