Food & Drink: My beautiful dumpling

Cultural enlightenment takes many forms - don't underestimated the edible
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DATELINE Shanghai: it's hot, steamy and wall-to-wall humanity, as waves of human faces surge forward and man-made towers soar relentlessly skywards. Only I'm not talking about the city. I'm talking about lunch.

It is rush hour in the Nanxiang, Shanghai's most famous dumpling house. Steam pours from the kitchen as if from a Swedish sauna, and waitresses on a mis- sion from the kitchen god emerge with trays piled skyscraper high with dark, damp bamboo steamers.

It's not the sort of place your tourist guide will take you, although it is a place to which you should take your tourist guide. The stoic, all-knowing Helen, who can rattle off 500 words on the Shanghai Museum at the drop of a Qing dynasty vase, sits there silent, her eyes stricken and her lips opening and closing like a fish out of water.

She is not to be blamed. I'd already bucked the system by refusing to see the giant jade Buddha, on the grounds that it could only be incrementally more boring than looking at a small jade Buddha, and insisted on visiting a real street market. She was beginning to despair that my road to cultural enlightenment was paved with restaurants rather than temples, until I asked her to take me to the Yu Yuan Gardens.

"Aah," she exclaimed joyfully. "Constructed between 1559 and 1577 as the home of the Pan family, rich officials from the Ming Dynasty." And so it went for the next hour or so, until we emerged from the gardens.

"Oh look," I said, eyebrows raised with intellectual curiosity, "a dumpling house."

"Oh, yes, that is a quite famous dumpling restaurant, actually," said Helen. "Shanghai has a permanent population of 14 million people, supplemented by a shifting population of 3 million ... "

"Do tell," I said, bounding up the stairs, trampling a few small children underfoot as I wove through the crowds. Henceforth I became the guide. Helen didn't know the restaurant's name came from the nearby town of Nanxiang, where the xiaolongbao steamed pork dumplings are said to be lighter and more succulent than any other in the province. Nor did she know how to get a table.

First you have to go to the counter and wave money at a girl with more tickets than the companies formerly known as British Rail. Then nominate in whatever language you can muster (fingers work best) how many steamers you want. She then says something like: "You want ginger with that?" Nod, and maybe point to the Tsing Tao beer in the nearby fridge. She will issue you with pink, white and blue tickets that mean nothing to you. Grasp them firmly, for they are your admission to heaven.

Then go and stand behind a nice family calmly eating their dumplings at one of the 12 dark wooden tables. Try glaring at them to make them feel uncomfortable and they will leave faster.

Immediately claim their chairs as your own and slap your tickets down on the table. Suddenly steamers arrive, each bearing a necklace of neatly pinched pale white purses that smell sweet and pure. You grab one with your issued chopsticks, pop it in your mouth and burn the hell out of your tongue as the searingly hot pork and juices explode in a fireball of flavour.

You don't do this again. You learn to wait. You learn respect. You learn to plunge your tongue into your beer. You learn, finally, how to eat xiaolongbao.

1 Talk amongst yourselves as they cool a little. Pour red vinegar from the teapot on the table over your little dish of shredded ginger.

2 Lift a dumpling to your mouth, purse your lips. Simultaneously bite a hole in the pastry and suck out the hot broth.

3 Dip your dumpling in the vinegar, allowing a little to seep in through the hole.

4 Eat. Chew slowly. Wait for the slow smile to creep across your face.

5 Go for another.

6 Go for another. Etc. I ate 16. So did Helen. With beer, the ubiquitous Sprite, plus ginger, it cost about pounds 2. Afterwards I was happy and content, but my guide looked forlorn. When pressed, she shook her head sadly. "I fear you are not learning anything about Shanghai," she said.