When dining in Shanghai, always follow the old folks. Today’s youth seem infatuated with trendy restaurants—Hello Kitty-themed cafés and fusion mallstrosities—no matter how inedible the fare. Old timers follow the good grub, even if the joint looks like a subway bathroom. Give them a stale duck at the Taj Mahal, and they’ll never return. Hence, when we saw a line of octogenarians snaking around the block at Yunnan Lu and Ninghai Dong Lu, we had to take a gander.
Their destination: Xiao Jing Ling, our vote for Nanjing cuisine in Shanghai. The signature is the Nanjing salted duck (RMB30-40, depending on the size of the bird), a half-millennium-old recipe that calls for duck dusted in spices—generally brine, Sichuan peppercorns, anise, salt and osmanthus (if it’s autumn)—and cooked in a stock with ginger, scallions and maybe rice wine. It literally pales in comparison to its bronze Peking brethren. And instead coming as ornately-arrayed shards of caramelized skin flanked by white pillows of mantou, it’s flopped whole into a metal tub like a cadaver at a morgue. But there’s a reason why these sell out like it’s Black Friday. The cooking process renders the meat taut and redolent with spice, with skin sporting a vellum of fat that dissipates into a succulent mist on your tongue.
No part of the bird goes to waste. Feet, gizzards—heck, basically everything except the “quack”—are cooked and eaten the same way. If you want a truly offal experience, go for the duck blood and glass noodle soup (RMB20). It’s a veritable bouillabaisse of off-cuts with bands of duck intestine, gizzards and, of course, blocks of congealed blood. Other key components include glass noodles, transparent threads of mung bean starch and spongy deep-fried firm tofu. The notion of eating animal plasma might make you squeamish. But no need to channel your inner-lamprey; the flavor is nothing like that metallic tinge tasted when sucking on a paper cut. It reminds us of more gelatinous liver.
Round out the meal with some tangbao (RMB8), Nanjing’s answer to xiaolongbao. It’s like Shanghai’s signature soup dumpling, but, well, soupier. The same technique applies: place one on a spoon, nip a vent to release steam, dunk it in vinegar and throw it down the hatch.
What: Xiao Jing Ling
Where: 55 Yunnan Nan Lu (near Ninghai Dong Lu) 云南南路55号 (近宁海东路)
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