Shanghai’s even got a TIME MACHINE.
It’s located specifically in one of Shanghai’s copious satellite towns: Nanxiang (南翔). Here, in this otherwise sleepy suburb, you’ll travel through time and space to the birthplace of xiaolongbao (also known as God’s gift to man). Here, where they celebrate the myriad genius of our ancestors by cooking dumplings in a bamboo steamer, you’ll be transported to the China of story.
But before the world’s greatest steamed dumplings can be yours, first things first: getting there. Nan2xiang2 is located in Shanghai’s northwest Jiading District, accessible via metro line 11 at the stop of the same name. Make your way to Guyi Garden (古猗园) and wander around its palatial grounds. The garden can be fairly crowded, but offers some of the most beautifully crafted scenes in the city:
It’s not just the endless flowers and fauna that will catch your eye, however. Pagoda and pavilion abound, and next to each of them you can really picture Ming Dynasty nobles contemplating matters of state in their private gardens. Guyi’s buildings take their cue from the scenery: the architectural style resembling the garden’s horizontal quality, bilateral symmetry referencing nature’s radial variety, the synthesis of organic and straight lines mimicking a flower in bloom. The place is also home to a restaurant serving (what else?) xiaolongbao, as well as a tea house overlooking the garden’s interior lake.
As astounding as Guyi is, Old Town Nanxiang is even more impressive. Though it spans only a few blocks, it packs quite the cultural punch. From the garden, head north along Guyiyuan Road, then west on Heping (和平) until you reach Shengchan (生产) Street parallel of the Hengli River (横沥河).
Traverse a small stone bridge to enter a different world.
Indeed, worlds apart is 南翔老街. Don’t be surprised if you experience sensory overload. For maximum effect, visit on the weekend to see the place in full swing. You’ll share Nanxiang with entire families — grandma and grandpa leading the way — as well as couples, kids, locals, and even a few tourists.
In the middle of a mishmash crowd of visitors, vendors, stores, and stalls, follow your nose to the nearest streetside bing shop. I recommend the salty herb kind indigenous to Nanxiang. Reminiscent of potato latke in terms of shape and texture, these bing are made from a sticky rice dough with a hefty dose of Chinese clover, then fried to a chewy crisp and served hot.
If you can bring yourself away from the countless shops selling bing, stinky tofu (rest assured, dedicated blog post to come), and milk tea, then continue west into the thick of it.
Nanxiang’s stone streets lined with old-style wooden buildings lead you to two twin pagodas. These structures hearken back to the 1766 originals, but have since been rebuilt.
Here you’ll see a curious scene. Out of the all-too-human desire to mitigate future misfortune, visitors have taken to tossing coins at the towers and landing it on the highest level possible in hopes of reaping the largest dose of luck. About 15 meters away from the pagodas sits an old brick well enclosed in a thick glass covering. The objective for this one is to slide a 1 kuai coin between the horizontal piece of glass and one of the vertical sides (the covering takes the shape of a large cube) and then blow out forcefully to dislodge the coin into the well below. Believe what you will about luck, fate, or serendipity, but in China you work for it.
No sweat, no 缘分 (yuan2fen4).
That being said, let’s get to what you really want to read about: the xiaolongbao.
They’re the flyweight champion of lunch foods, the perfect bite every bite. They’re so good that you traveled 1.5 hours on a crowded subway just to have a taste. You want them. Bad. You might even need them.
As you’d expect, the xiaolongbao are unparalleled. I’d bet a fair sum that any one of Nanxiang’s corner restaurants could hold its own with the high-end dumpling houses of Din Tai Fung et al. That’s not a knock on the quality of food being produced for ¥50 a serving in the French Concession; rather, it’s a testament to the world-class food preparation occurring in the outskirts.
If you haven’t already been schooled in the art of steamed dumpling eating, consider this your initiation. Bite a small hole in the dough, drink the hot broth inside, dip in vinegar and chili, eat in one bite. Repeat. Eat two or three plain, then dip the rest in a small saucer of black rice vinegar. This unassuming, devilishly dark, fermented liquid is key.
(One of these days, I’ll manage to take a picture of the things before wolfing them down.)
Generalizations don’t suit xiaolongbao. Every restaurant in Shanghai makes the classic dish a little differently and all claim to cook the best. The Nanxiang version tends to have a thicker dough and simple meat filling. No frills or overpowering flavors — just the right amount of savory, sweet, and sour. It’s easy to see why these things became a local favorite and staple of Chinese cuisine internationally.
Once you exit Shanghai’s atmosphere, there’s still boundless space. While the city sucks you in with its undeniable gravity, the world does not revolve around Shanghai. Laowai tourists and the ultra-wealthy can stick to orbiting The Bund — I’ll be in the sticks, chopsticks in hand.
Indeed, flying south to Nanxiang just might’ve been my best decision in China yet.