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Chinese Takeout: Who Makes China’s Most Sought-After Dumplings?

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Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, bi-weekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.

For a wide swath of Chinese cuisine, dumplings are an essential staple. While they come in all shapes and forms, xiaolongbao — the soup-filled steamed bun originating from Shanghai — is easily one of its most famous varieties.

For domestic tourists to Shanghai, there is one name that’s next to synonymous with xiaolongbao: “Nanxiang Xiaolong,” a restaurant with more than 100 years of history crafting Shanghai’s ubiquitous dumpling.

The flagship restaurant in old Shanghai’s Yu Garden — a historical site teeming with tourists year-round — now moonlights as the training hub for its seventh-generation master, who will act as something like the spiritual head for the whole organization. So who will be selected to helm the nation’s most popular dumplings? And how does a century-old master brand stay abreast of a nation’s changing palettes?

The Place

The “Nanxiang” in Nanxiang Xiaolong derives from the 6th-century water town and birthplace of the brand’s founder, Huang Mingxian. While the town itself has since become a xiaolongbao destination in its own right in the suburbs of Shanghai, Nanxiang Xiaolong’s downtown outlet is easily its most successful export.

Restless queues have transformed the Yu Garden flagship restaurant into a xiaolongbao Mecca, yet up until two decades ago, Nanxiang Xiaolong served quite a different crowd. “The elders who lived in nearby lanehouses used to come with their own teapots,” recalls manager Dong Niankai. “They would pitch by the best window seat and stay here for half a day.”

These “bad-for-business” customers have long since gone, and the interiors have adopted a more genteel appearance in recent years, swapping chipped long benches for cushioned chairs and VIP booths overlooking the garden and swarming crowds.

And now Nanxiang Xiaolong sits at an important turning of a page. Their sixth-generation xiaolongbao master, You Yumin, is tasked with selecting her successor from among five candidates at the end of her tenure. The chosen “Nanxiang master”, in their words, will demonstrate a balance of dumpling-making prowess and vision to propel the century-old establishment into its next hundred years.

The History

Like many of her coworkers, You first joined Nanxiang Xiaolong as a fresh graduate from culinary school, when she was 17. To be selected as an apprentice chef at Nanxiang, one must have foundational knowledge and skills in making Chinese dim sum, plus an expressed desire to master the craft of xiaolongbao.

You was then steadily groomed in the art and labor of the soup-filled delicacies. This at first meant making just two of their classic varieties — minced pork and crab meat — and perfecting each step in the process for months at a time. It took her two years to graduate to making xiaolongbao, start to finish, that would actually be served to customers.

For Nanxiang Xiaolong’s first 50 years of operation, the master often selected his or her successor from within the team. After the restaurant was collectivized in the late 1950s — a fate many private enterprises shared — Nanxiang Xiaolong would operate with no master at all for over three decades, until 1992.

These days Nanxiang Xiaolong remains tight-lipped as to what this selection process actually entails, as most of it still happens behind closed doors. But while stages of the process are marked by more publicized competition — pitting chefs from around the city against their own — the final five candidates for the title of “seventh-generation master” have all been working at Nanxiang Xiaolong for at least 15 years. It seems then that the brand prioritizes commitment as much as anything else.

You recalls that when she assumed the role in 2005, there were not only deeper pockets than before, but also a growing appetite for delicacy, as local middle class and tourism markets had begun to surge. “The kind of xiaolongbao our first master invented was a lot heavier,” says You. “What we see now is not the substantial bun it once was, but an appetizer or tea snack.”

To meet these expectations, a “double rolling pin” technique was implemented to make doughs paper-thin. Fillings such as prawns, matsutake mushrooms and spicy crab also sprang up to satiate Cantonese, Japanese and Korean palates.

The Food

Every brand has its own method of making xiaolongbao. For more than a hundred years, the Nanxiang xiaolongbao recipe — while consistently evolving — has been safeguarded by the master and her trusted apprentices. No exact measurements or methods have ever been recorded on paper.

That is, until now. “Part of my duty as master is to write down a manual detailing the exact quantities of ingredients,” says You. Measuring cups, scales and testing equipments are adopted in lieu of “pinches” and “splashes,” in order to both standardize cooking techniques internally and accommodate increasingly health-conscious customers.

Today, there are nine xiaolongbao options on the menu, along with a plethora of seasonal Shanghainese side dishes. Curiously, in a white-bread world full of choices, Nanxiang Xiaolong’s bestseller still remains the original minced pork xiaolongbao.

Parcelled under 16 pleats of half-translucent skin, Nanxiang Xiaolong’s signature dumplings corral a chewy centre and clear soup made from pork jelly and chicken consommé. Also exemplary of the chef’s skill are the needle-thin threads of ginger afloat in a vinegar dip.

On a recent visit, as we left Nanxiang Xiaolong, two elderly ladies peered curiously into the marbled hallway. “We didn’t recognize the entrance! It has changed so much,” they exclaimed, before turning to each other. “Let’s hope the food is as we remember it!”

All photos by Mandy Tie.

Mandy Tie
    Mandy Tie is a China-based writer and illustrator. After spending years in the UK, Mandy has worked as an editor at Time Out and That’s magazines in Shanghai. When not tied to a desk, she’s usually backpacking in harsher climes documenting local food and culture.

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