Direct from Shanghai, mouth-searing morselsWhen Chinese restaurants in Korea use the word “Shanghai” in their names (or their advertising), it usually doesn’t mean anything in particular; it’s just an attempt to trade on the exotic image of the port city. But Nanxiang, which opened in October, is an exception.
This elegantly decorated restaurant serves wonderfully authentic xiaolongbao, the dumplings also known as “steamed soup buns” ―a Shanghai specialty. These hot, scrumptious morsels, served in bamboo steamers, are fast becoming a major attraction on Cheongdam-dong’s trendy restaurant row. If you don’t have a reservation, you’ll probably have to wait at least 30 minutes.
What’s so great about these dumplings? The answer is that the Nanxiang franchises (this is the third one outside of China) follow the recipes used by the original restaurant in Shanghai. Xie Chi Chuan, senior director of Shanghai Nanxiang, who’s been with the company for 45 years, says he regularly visits the Seoul restaurant to ensure that the dumplings ―made on the spot by six Chinese cooks, in an open kitchen ―live up to the original standards.
Unlike ordinary dumplings, xiaolongbao contains a spoonful of hot broth in addition to the meat filling. Diners are advised to place one on a spoon, then carefully break it open, letting the broth spill into the spoon. This is to make sure none of the delicious broth is wasted. Add the dipping sauce topped with shredded ginger, finish the rest of the dumpling and go for another one, if your dining companions haven’t already snapped them up.
At prices averaging around 10,000 won ($9.50) for each steamer of seven or so dumplings, my friends and I found this to be an affordable and enjoyable meal.
We tried several varieties, including the chef’s personal favorites, steamed buns with pork (7,000 won) and with crabmeat filling (11,000 won).
Biting into the pork dumplings, we nodded and agreed that the Chinese know how to cook pork. The broth was super-hot but incredibly tasty; the meat was velvety, with complex aromas. We all liked the crabmeat buns, made from imported freshwater crabs, which were, again, steaming hot and wonderful. The pine mushroom dumplings (14,000 won) were aromatic with the mushroom’s distinct flavor.
Tangbao (6,000 won), king-size dumplings with a crab ovary filling, was the most exotic dish we tried. Extremely hot, hand-molded dumplings, about the size of a fist, were served with thick bamboo straws that fit right into a hole on top of each dumpling. We were asked to drink the broth through the straw “very slowly, with caution,” because it could really burn the palate. Indeed, three of us were singed, but it didn’t stop them. The unusual but delicious herbal flavor we detected, I was told later, came from the lettuce leaf and greenish-brown straw at the bottom of the steamer. Once the soup was finished, we tore the dumplings open to pick at the delicious crab filling.
We also tried spring rolls with currried meat (6,000 won) and the highly recommended buns with sticky rice filling (7,000 won). The spring rolls were extra crispy on the outside, very nice, with the familiar curry flavor. Everyone loved the sticky rice dumplings.
To go with the xiaolongbao, we ordered a bottle of hot Shaoxing wine served with sweet dried plums, lemon and sugar cubes. We didn’t like the wine, which wasn’t served warm enough. The chef also recommended European red wine, mao tai jiu (wheat and sorghum wine) and plain Chinese tea.
After rounds of wondrous dumpling treats came a beautiful and delicious combination of dishes, Shanghai-style: yong chow fried rice (11,000 won) and sauteed bok choy (12,000 won).
This Nanxiang franchise is the first in Korea; Japan has two already, in Tokyo and Kawasaki. Incidentally, the restaurant doesn’t offer takeout, since the dumplings are meant to be eaten immediately, when they’re at their best.
Looking back, our meal at Nanxiang somehow made our friendship more special. Each time a steamer was opened, laughter and interesting conversation followed; it left our stomachs full and our spirits enlightened. If you want that kind of weekend, xiaolongbao is a great way to start.
English: Spoken, and on the menu.
Tel.: (02) 3446-0874.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Location: Behind the Prada flagship store in Cheongdam-dong.
Dress: Smart casual or elegant.
by Ines Cho