Xiao long bao is, without question, the most famous export from Shanghainese cuisine, and is now commonplace on dim sum menus the world over. So often, however, and especially in London, the offerings are of a substandard persuasion, suffering from some combination of skin that is too thick, soup that is insufficient, or in some cases just absent, and meat that lacks flavour.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun is regarded by many as the granddaddy of XLB - one of the oldest and most famous XLB institutions in Shanghai, it has now expanded internationally to Japan, South Korea and Singapore. If the queues at its chief location near the Yuyuan Garden and City of God Temple in Shanghai were anything to go by, we were in for a real treat. We skipped the long (and continuously growing) takeaway line on the ground floor, as well as the casual dining area on the second, and headed straight for the third floor, where the scene was rather more peaceful.
Ordering here, unlike at nigh on every other restaurant on this trip where the menus were practically the size of a volume of the encyclopaedia, was very straightforward - baskets and baskets of xiao long bao please!
But first, a couple of the supplementary items arrived: Spring roll with crab roe stuffing was more samosa than spring roll; but call it what you want, they were gorgeous. A thin, crispy exterior gave way to a warm, lush, tasty filling of beautiful crab roe and diced tofu. Oh yeah!
Now, onto the main event...the xiao long bao. We opted for three kinds; the first one I tried was a Steamed Bun with Pork and Crab Albino Stuffing. The wrapper was less thick than at Ling Long Ge the night before, but by no means paper thin - here was the Shanghainese preference for thicker-skinned XLB raring its ugly head again. Never mind - when in Rome, do as the Romans. The meat and soup was lovely - eggy and full of flavour. This wasn't the most refined XLB I've had, but it was plenty good. Next the Steamed Bun with Pork and Crab Roe Stuffing. Hello, this one had an even more intense eggy flavour. Very good. As for the regular Steamed Bun with Pork and Crab Meat Stuffing, well I made the mistake of leaving that till last, and after the two crab varieties packed with roe, the plain pork one barely registered.
We also had Steamed Hairy Crab here, purely out of necessity - no amount of XLBs were ever going to get us to the minimum order required for the private room we were given. It was alright, comparable to the somewhat disappointing Ling Long Ge version the night before; but I'm not going to dwell on that as, if given the choice, we wouldn't have ordered it - you don't come to Nanxiang Steamed Bun for hairy crab, so I'm not going to judge them on it.
In a nutshell...
Was this the best xiao long bao I've ever had? No. The thickness of the dumpling skin, coupled with my non-Shanghainese preference for thin wrappers, put paid to any chance of that. But the eggy soup and filling full of depth and flavour was delicious, as was the "spring roll" starter, and that made for a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun
85 Yuyuan Road, 2nd Floor, Huangpu, Shanghai
Average Price: RMB150-RMB250