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[Revisited]: Tourist Trap Dumplings in Yu Garden

Investigating the state of Shanghai's most famous dumpling.
Last updated: 2019-07-16
Photos: Brandon McGhee
Revisited is where we circle back on places that have been around for a while and deserve a look-in to see how they’ve aged.

Things were getting dire. After more than 100 years of business, the Nanxiang Steamed Bun shop near Yu Garden was on its last legs when I visited in 2015 for my soup dumpling index. Downstairs, where a legion of workers smacked and smushed dumpling skins out, a long line formed every morning as tourists queued to try Shanghai’s most famous dumpling, in arguably its most famous location. (Meanwhile, Shanghainese tourists took bus tours to Jiading’s Nanxiang town, where the dumpling, and the Nanxiang Steamed Bun shop’s predecessor, were both born.)

If only they knew.

By my measurement, the wrapper of the downstairs dumplings was almost three times as thick as the thinnest one I found that year, and twice as thick as the average wrapper. It was a result of the “oil method”, where the dough is pressed out by hand to form a wrapper instead of being rolled out with a pin. That saved time and allowed the finished dumplings to be manhandled and tossed around like ping pong balls without breaking. Not that breaking would have mattered anyway; these soup dumplings had no soup. Eager tourists, out for an authentic Shanghai experience, were victims of their own demand, as quality was sacrificed for speed.

As I said, the situation was dire.

Upstairs, the situation was different. The higher you went, and the higher minimum spend you agreed to (topping out at a whopping 80rmb per person), the better your experience, ascending all the way to “just fine, would repeat.” Meanwhile, the original store had branched out into multiple mall outlets, making soup dumplings to order and serving a respectable variety of Shanghainese dim sum to a largely Shanghai clientele who couldn’t be bothered going to the tourist trap in Yu Garden. There was some dissonance across the brand.

Finally, in 2018, the company did the right thing and shut down the Yu Garden location for a six-month renovation.

So after finally steeling myself against the crowds and chaos of the City God Temple complex, I went down to see exactly what’s changed since their October 2018 re-launch.

A lot.

The first thing that strikes you when you finally approach the zig-zag bridge, which the queue used to bump up against, is that there is no queue, not in the way there once was.

In fact, in an act of what can only be called corporate mercy, there is no downstairs shop at all. The dreadful dumplings of takeout past are gone, replaced by elegant women in full length dresses gently guiding you into a downstairs waiting area — don’t call this a queue — before you are called to the higher planes of existence: the second and third floors. Gone is the minimum charge. Gone is the gruff second floor and its standing counter. Gone are the divisions between us.

In their place is a thoroughly modern restaurant, with a light, clean, casual feel and QR codes to scan for on-phone menus. On that menu (or on the printed one, which they continue to stock for us technophobes) are a range of different soup dumplings, from the usual pork variety to the pork-and-crab variant all the way out to the edges of chef You Youmin’s imagination with a Spanish mackerel steamed bun and a sea cucumber and organic herb steamed bun.

Prices are near Din Tai Fung levels, with the per dumpling price rising from 6.3rmb each (plain pork) to 11.3rmb each for crab roe and pork to 18rmb each for the sea cucumber and organic herb variety.

But. How. Were. They!

I didn’t bring my calipers or scale this time, but a few objective observations. The wrapper was about 1.25mm thick, which is thin but not thin thin; still, enough to not get in the way. The dumplings themselves were on the larger side, even for Nanxiang Steamed Bun shop’s other chain locations. The filling was pure Nanxiang-style, which means minimally seasoned (no ginger or spring onion here) and the broth was pure and almost clear.

Also, they tasted nice. They tasted like xiao long bao you might get at many other locations around Shanghai, a good sign and a positive development for the hordes of tourists mobbing the area and the restaurant. Finally, they get a break. The pork dumplings were porky, the pork-and-shrimp filling was bouncy, and the whole place had the faint smell of Zhenjiang rice vinegar about it.

The most notable thing about the three types of dumplings I ordered was Nanxiang Steamed Bun's completely vegetarian soup dumpling, made with shepherd’s purse and diced mushroom. The vegetarian xiao long bao — the Impossible Xiao Long Bao — is becoming possible in Shanghai.

Overall, the Nanxiang Steamed Bun administrators have done a respectable job at reinvigorating their brand, and cleaning up their image. Their dumpling skills were never in doubt, even if they chose to hide those skills for a time, on the ground floor, but things are looking up. Xiao long bao, wan sui.