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Soup Buns in Shanghai, China

“What does real Chinese food taste like?” My American boss asked me. I told him that the Chinese food in America was generally far from authentic. The food in China has been diversified due to its long history and many regions, much like cheeses in Europe. Generally, there are eight cuisines, or Eight Great Traditions, named for their origins. Because many of the recipes have not been written down in cookbooks, the dishes are quite personalized by each individual chef. So when my boss finally got a chance to visit Shanghai, I made myself a food advisor for him.

The Small Soup Bun

The first dish that I recommended was the small soup bun, because it is unique. Typically, about the size of a ping-pong ball, the hand-made buns are steamed and served in bamboo baskets. They are wrapped by translucent and smooth flour skins such that the filling inside can only vaguely be seen. The best part of this dim sum dish is that you need to drink it first, as the soup is wrapped inside flour skins. 

The most famous restaurant for small soup buns in Shanghai is Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, located in the area of Temple of the Town Deity, which is now a center of craft stores. After refusing many sale inquiries and fighting our way through the crowds, we finally reached the diminutive wood-made building where many people were waiting outside.

Without a word, my boss joined the line. Obviously, he was getting used to waiting in my well-populated country. I joked with him and told him that he was in the wrong line. To his surprise, although the restaurant appeared small, it actually consists of three floors. The service level rises along with its height.

First Floor Take-Out

The first floor is for take-out. Therefore, people wait outside. The steamed buns (with only pork fillings) are sold cheaply in plastic bowls, splashed with vinegar. The line is long but moves very quickly. People in this line usually just want a fast and fairly delicious meal. Although store managers insist that the buns are all made the same way, no one really believes that they are as good as upstairs.

Second Floor Table Service

The second floor provides table service, but you have to order at the counter and help yourself as you would at a deli or fast-food chain in the U.S. Here the buns are served in bamboo baskets as they should be. You can smell the bamboo scent while eating. Vinegar with sliced ginger roots is placed on a small plate -- a perfect size to dip the buns. The varieties range from pure pork to seafood. The prices are reasonable. You can get a basket of 16 fresh meat buns only at about 30 Yuan (currently exchange rate is approximately one dollar to seven Yuan). The line on this floor is shorter, however, it moves much more slowly. The average waiting time is about 40 minutes. If you do not mind the crowds, this floor is a good choice.

Third Floor with Waiters and Menus

The third floor is the highest level. There are waiters and menus. The tables are bigger and have rotating plates in the middle similar to many other Chinese restaurants. Besides the traditional buns, there are many new food creations on this floor, such as the crab roe soup buns. The crab roe soup bun is an oddity in this restaurant because it is four times as big as a normal small bun. It is served in a 3-inch diameter bamboo basket, with one basket for each bun. Because it is so abundant with soup, a pipette is provided. “Drinking” this bun is like “drinking” a coconut. The line on this floor is shorter and the space is less crowded, but the price is much higher---about three times that of the second floor and six times the first. There are only six buns served in one basket compared with sixteen at the second floor. The minimum amount you will spend here is 60 Yuan per person (about 9-10 dollars), which means that you have to order more than 60 Yuan worth or food to gain the privilege of sitting there. Very few local people have ever been to this floor. It is frequented mainly by tourists.

Almost all foreigners go to the third floor. We followed this unwritten rule. We agreed to share a table with some other people and got our seats immediately. However, this sharing caused a little trouble, for the inexperienced waitress mixed up our orders. Thanks to the vaguely translucent bun wrappings, we figured them out.

Our orders ranged from a basket of fresh meat stuffing (33 Yuan), a basket of mushroom stuffing (30 Yuan), two big crab roe soup buns with pipettes (22 Yuan) and some appetizers. The fresh meat stuffing was the most original. As I heard, the inventor of the small soup bun was the owner of a small dim sum restaurant in a town called Nanxiang. When he opened his place, he had made larger fresh meat buns--baseball sized--with no soup inside. He carried them on his back, and sold them in the streets. Because of the good business, more and more people imitated him. To win the competition, he reduced the size of the buns and created the inner soup which was hard to imitate. However, he never thought of using materials other than fresh pork meat. Fillings such as sea food, vegetables, and mushrooms were not that popular until people realized their health value.

Playfully Watching Foreigners Eat Soup Buns in China

Eating with foreigners is always amusing when one is native Chinese and dining with my boss was no exception. The most embarrassing part of the meal for my boss was drying to use chopsticks. Unlike other Chinese restaurants, there were no forks available, because forks ruin the inner soups by puncturing holes in the skins. You are traditionally supposed to remove a small soup bun from the bamboo basket without breaking the skin. Then, one should dip the bun in Chinese vinegar with shredded ginger, take a small bite, and drink all the soup inside. Following all these steps is the normal way to eat soup buns. If someone used a fork to stab this delicate dim sum dish, he or she would be ridiculed as someone who drinks Moët champagne like a Bud Light in the United States.

My boss wisely gave up and replaced the chop sticks with his fingers, shortly after breaking two buns. He was very satisfied with the soup, while his right hand was a bit of a mess. The mushroom stuffed buns were his favorite, but he was intimidated by the crab roe buns. After sucking up the soup with his pipette, he broke his bun and studied it for a long time. He was not quite daring enough to taste it. People next to us complained about how much he was wasting. I did not translate of course. If you fear unusual food such as crab roes or eels, simply do not order them. They are very expensive and delicious dishes for most Chinese people. Wasting them is considered a bit disrespectful.

An Enjoyable Culinary Adventure Had by All

In the end, this little food adventure worked out well. My boss said he never tried anything that exotic. The building, the service, the food, the eating utensils, and the companions--everything was new to him. If you go to Shanghai, small soup buns are worth trying. But do not forget, Chinese soup buns in Shanghai are only considered a small snack, like a tiny star in the Milky Way.     

For More Info

Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant (the most famous branch):

Address: 85 Yuyuan Rd. Shanghai
Telephone: 86-21-63554206 (86 is China’s country code and 21 is Shanghai’s city code. If you are in Shanghai, just dial 63554206)
Directions: Take the taxi to the Temple of the Town Deity (It is also called the City God’s Temple. The Chinese pronunciation is “Cheng Huang Miao”). Walk toward Yuyuan Garden and you will easily find the restaurant located on the side of the Lotus Pond, close to the Nine Turn Bridge. Unfortunately, there is no English map available for this area, yet it is not difficult to find the pond with a zigzag bridge stretching over it.
Website: www.laomiaocanyin.com/en/brand/brand_9.aspx 

Other branches of Nanxiang small soup buns in Shanghai:

529, Wanhangdu Rd., Jing’an District, Shanghai. Phone: 86-21-62482809
210 Guyiyuan Rd., Jiading District, Shanghai. Phone: 86-21-59174019
176 Gushanlu Rd., New Pudong District, Shanghai. Phone: 86-21-58522523,
80 Rushan Rd., New Pudong District, Shanghai. Phone: 86-21-58787282