Note: an abbreviated version of this post originally appeared in the blog of the Asian Art Museum.
The steamed dumpling known as xiao long bao, described so evocatively by Olivia Wu on the Asian Art Museum's 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, and therein lies a melancholy tale; it's become obvious to xiao long bao aficionados, including yours truly, that the quality of The Nanxiang's XLB has fallen off significantly since that time.
The fall from grace of the Nanxiang Mantou Dian's xiao long bao is particularly noticeable in the thickness of the wrappers, especially when compared to the creations of the new standard bearers like De Long Guan, Jia Jia Tang Bao and Shan Wei Guan (see my earlier Xiao Long Bao Report Card). My theory is that the takeout window is the culprit here. When you order from the takeout window, your dumplings are unceremoniously dumped from a steamer into a paper boat, and of necessity are made with industrial-strength wrappers to avoid breakage from this rude treatment. The veritable xiao long bao factory on the ground floor (which you can observe through the windows) also makes the XLB for the main dining room on the second floor, so it's not surprising you are getting takeout-grade dumplings there, too. The more expensive third floor dining room has its own xiao long bao chefs, but even there the offerings seem to reflect both lowered expectations and a horror of breakage, coming with wrappers that are more delicate than downstairs but still thicker than they were in the glory days. My rule of thumb is that if at least one in a dozen doesn't break under a too-casual lifting, the maker isn't pushing the envelope (or the wrapper,as it were), and depriving you of the real xiao long bao miracle.
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. Although xiao long bao connoisseurs will warn you that its dumplings no longer meet the gold standard the restaurant itself established, 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.