Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
Yuyuan Bazaar, 378 Fuyou Rd, Shanghai
This post is going to be about 'MUST-SEES'. As a tourist visiting Shanghai, one place that's considered 'must-see' is Oldtown aka Chen Huang Miao. Yu Yuan (another popular tourist sight) is located in the center of Oldtown so perhaps that will ring a bell.
Oldtown is a collection of, well, old buildings. You'll find gorgeous temple-style architecture - iconic roofs and wooden lattice windows. Everything is refurbished though, so you don't feel like you're walking through dusty, crumbling buildings. The buildings in Oldtown house many restaurants, small-eateries and souvenir stores. In particular, there are many shops stocking traditional Chinese products, i.e. tea, silk, pottery and calligraphy.
In terms of food, this is not a fine dining district. There is a heavy presence of foreign food chains (McDonalds, Dairy Queen and Haagen Daaz, to name a few). However, the focus is on SMALL EATS. Walking around, you can see anything from quails on a stick to lamb skewers, tea eggs, rice ball stands and stinky tofu.
If you are curious to try something that's fundamentally Shanghainese, it's hard to go past little dragon buns. Along with the pan-fried buns, they are typical Shanghainese cuisine, perhaps even more so.
Little dragon buns are made of a thin outer casing with a pork-based filling. They are very delicate and must be eaten quickly. The buns are considered 'well-made' if the casing is thin (but intact) and there is 'soup' inside. You bite a hole in the casing and suck the soup out OR you pop a dragon bun in your mouth whole and enjoy.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant is a very reputable store when it comes to little dragon buns. With it's central location in Oldtown, it is very very popular. Nanxiang adopts an interesting 'system' to let you decide how much you're willing to pay not to stand in queue.
The ground floor always has a long queue. Expect an hour or so wait. Up one story, the buns are more expensive but you have a shorter wait. It is cafeteria-style eating and you get a 'ticket' for the purchase of the buns. You then have to stalk the seats till you find a vacancy OR stand behind someone who looks like they're about to finish and quickly snap up their seat.
If that sounds too competitive, you can go up another floor or two where it's conventional seated dining. As expected, the buns are again more expensive each floor you go up but the waiting times are shorter.
My mum and I were too impatient for the ground floor queue but too timid for the cafeteria floor so we went for the dining levels.
Nanxiang focuses on little dragon buns but they also have other snacks. We ignored those and ordered 2 'lian' of little dragon buns which is equivalent to 1 dozen. We chose 1/2 pure pork buns and 1/2 pork & crab-meat buns. You can also go more upmarket with pork & crab-roe buns.
As we were waiting for the food, we watched the staff prepare the buns. It was mind-blowing to watch: these guys are fast! Each person had a different 'roll' and as I was watching the guy who folds the wrapper up around the meat, I could swear it looked like his hands were on 'fast forward'. Amazing.
Our buns arrived and they are indeed delicious. To be honest, I'm not a HUGE fan of plain pork little dragon buns but at Nanxiang, they manage to stand out. I still prefer the crab ones though.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant is popular even amongst local Shanghainese people, so you know it's not some kind of foreign gimmick. Apparently, Nanxiang expanded their restaurant overseas to Hong Kong, Singapore and the likes. I heard that their popularity overseas was not that great and my mum explained that this could be because people don't know how to eat them? Her theory is that in Hong Kong, people like to eat slowly and chat over 'yum cha time'. This doesn't work for little dragon buns because they need to be eaten immediately and quickly.
There's not a lot of things I stress you MUST do when visiting Shanghai, but trying the little dragon buns would definitely make your trip more 'complete'.