Warmer air is drifting into Jiangsu provence and Jiangyin’s Renmin Lu (People’s Street) was bustling this past weekend. Shops and restaurants pop up like gophers in China, sometimes only for a month or two, before padlocking their doors again. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing and profits aren’t high enough to stay open. It’s hard to imagine how the tiny mom and pop kitchens or the hardware shops with junk piled sky high have stayed in business at all, especially during winter.
I happened to stumble across a new steamed bun place (actually on the way to a different steamed bun place). The crowd outside the tiny restaurant caught the attention of everybody walking by. Usually, steamed buns, or baozi, are prepared in the kitchen then steamed outside in round bamboo baskets. This place was making the local kind of soup dumpling, xiaolongbao. The xiaolong part means “small, steaming basket” and bao simply means “bread.”
Braving the chaotic restaurant crowds is worth it. You went inside to pay for how many dumplings you want (I bought 4 dumplings for 6RMB), receive a ticket from the cashier, and go back outside to give your ticket to the person steaming the dumplings. I happened to get there just as they were making a new batch, so I waited about 10 minutes in a semi-orderly line forming down the sidewalk.
I watched an employer rotate the large, round pan for about 10 minutes, then he covered the pan with a bamboo lid and let the freshly made batch of dumplings steam. The inside is filled with pork and chives and soup broth. The bottoms of the dumplings are browned and chewy.
Anthony Bourdain should think about making a trip to Jiangyin