Work In Progress: Xiao Long Bao
Since figuring out how to "inject" soup into a dumpling, the next logical step was to figure out how to make xiao long bao. This Shanghainese specialty, named after the small bamboo steamer (xiao long) it's typically served in, is without doubt the dumpling lover's dumpling. W is a bit fixated with it (I attribute this to his Shanghainese grandmother) - I don't know about you, but for me, living with someone who doesn't mind sampling and constructively critiquing the inevitable disasters that occur along the learning curve is a huge motivational factor in the kitchen.
Like a bite-sized version of its Cantonese cousin, kun tong bao (a big dumpling pouch enclosing a soupy stuffing), xiao long bao should be sheathed by a skin that's delicately thin yet resilient enough to encase its steaming, soupy contents. And in my unqualified if unbiased opinion - seeing as I am neither Shanghainese nor Cantonese - the pop-in-your-mouth presentation makes xiao long bao that much more fun to eat. Bite into a well-made specimen and there should be an explosion, a veritable gushing, of intensely flavoured broth in the mouth. Experienced xiao long bao eaters know how to wait for the right moment to eat the dumpling (not when it's scaldingly, tongue-searingly hot off the steamer, but carefully calculated moments after), and how to gracefully slurp the dumpling without wasting one precious drop of broth. Waste aside, broth dribbling down the chin, splattering across the table, and other general mess, are considered exceedingly gauche - consider such the novice xiao long bao eater's joyous learning curve.
The secret to this magical dumpling comes down to an extremely humble ingredient. So humble, in fact, that if you ask your friendly neighbourhood butcher very nicely, he's likely to give it away for next to nothing - although if like me, you find the sight of burly men wielding lethally sharp knives intimidating to say the least, you'll likely have bought something of relatively significant value before making your case. The skin of a pig, or pork rind, is a miraculous thing extremely rich in albumen and collagen, which convert into gelatine when simmered in water. When the water in question is highly flavoured to begin with, ie. a good chicken stock, there you have it - the formula for jelled stock, a naturally set aspic. You'll come across the odd recipe asking for the stock to be set with the refined, pure, colourless, odourless and characterless powder neat from the packet - please, don't go there. Lack of character is exactly what's required for a panna cotta, but for the purposes of xiao long bao, you would be shortchanging yourself in the taste department. Natural gelatine as carrier of natural meat flavour as opposed to mere jellification agent - it's precisely for this quality, for instance, that many traditional French daube recipes often call for the addition of pork rind.
The viscosity of a gelatine-rich liquid is related not only to the gelatine content per se but also to temperature. When chilled, the gelatine-rich stock (made by steaming chicken stock with the pieces of pork rind for several hours before straining out the spent rind) will set into a firm jelly. Jelly firm enough for you to turn out and dice into cubes.
The cubes of jelly are buried like so many nuggets of potential liquid gold in seasoned, fatty pork mince; the jelled stock liquefies when the dumplings are steamed. Thusly, you get soup-in-a-dumpling.
Science aside, there's an art to making xiao long bao - a dumpling nimbly crafted by the most expert dim sum chef should boast an amazing number of tidy little pleats. Count 'em - 18 at least, 24 if in good hands. The ability to manipulate the dough is a function of not just skill but the dough itself - pliable enough to be stretched very thinly yet with a sufficiently developed gluten structure to be so worked without tearing. After much fiddling and tweaking and the aforementioned inevitable disasters, I've arrived at a formula that's starting to look right - not a hot water dough (flour plus hot water), not a regular dough (flour plus room temperature water), but both. In other words, first make a hot water dough, separately make a regular dough, than finally combine the two (in the ratio of 1 part hot water dough to 3 parts regular dough) to form a smooth cohesive dough.
No recipe yet - it's definitely work in progress. While this latest batch has a sufficiently dramatic soup-spurting-forth effect, and I've worked up to the requisite bare minimum number of pleats thanks to the amateur-friendly dough, I have yet to learn the gesture for making evenly measured and spaced pleats, and for sealing the dumpling at its uppermost point without creating an overly thick and clumsy tip. If and when I do, I will hopefully have a recipe to post.