Saturday, September 09, 2006

Work In Progress: Xiao Long Bao

Whether or not you believe that rusty old fable about Marco Polo and pasta - and it's highly dubious given the archaeological evidence that the Etruscans and ancient Romans were avid consumers of the stuff - there's no denying certain culinary parallels where noodles and dumplings are concerned. Mian and spaghetti. Jiao zi and ravioli. Certainly, for the cook, be she and/or the recipe Chinese or Italian, the pleasure of rolling noodles and stuffing dumplings is a constant - a manual and methodical process that's all the more soothing for its labour. And certainly, for me, this pleasure explains my love of making noodles and dumplings, regardless of race, language or religion.

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.

33 Comments:

Blogger Mary said...

My mom makes amazing Cantonese dumplings and dim sum, but she's hardly ever makes xiao long bao. Thank you for sharing the secret of the jellied stock cube. And your pleats are perfect!

6:49 am, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous Tanna said...

I would agree with Mary: Your pleats are perfect and the dumplings magnific!!
Those jellied cube are a marvel!!

8:38 am, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous elena said...

oh my oh my! how clever is jellied soup?! your photography alone is enough to inspire me to drop everything and go see my sell-pork-uncle at the market and buy pork skin. I admire your meticulous efforts in your food prepatations! Love your blog!

9:08 am, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous maryeats said...

Thank you for this post! I have been enamored with xiao long bao since my recent trip to Shanghai. Every time I ask, no restaurant will tell me the secret the soup. I figured it must be gelatin.

Looking forward to a recipe, though I should practice my rolling and folding skills first.

11:00 am, September 09, 2006  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hi Jocelyn - I'm so happy to see another dumpling post! How in the world did you arrive at that formulation for the dough? What qualities were you looking for in the dough?

Your xiao long bao are beautiful and sound delicious (I've never had them before, but I'm really curious to try them now).

11:28 am, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous gwenda said...

yay! i've been hunting for a xialongbao recipe for a while now; can't wait for you to post your recipe up! :D

stupid question, but: i read in your other dumpling post that you diced up the aspic in the other dumplings, so is there a reason for burying them as cubes in the minced meat in the xiaolongbaos? (i imagine that with the jellied soup in the middle of the meat ball you'd get soup-enclosed-in-a-meat-sphere but am sure it isn't the case. that's pretty awesome actually, how the meat comes together to form a little ball instead of dissipating to form a mushy soup-mince mixture!)

and, even though yr xiaolongbaos still lack the pleated ring at the top, they're awfully neat and pretty already! like little works of art. :)

4:38 pm, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous Esther said...

OMG! I adore Xiao Long Baos!

Yours look so pretty. And now, I know the secret of the soup-in-dumpling process.

Thank you for the wonderful post.

8:48 pm, September 09, 2006  
Blogger Orchidea said...

Hi. I love Xiao Long Bao... it was my favorite dish when I was in Singapore and was eating it so often there... Tey are so good!
I tried to make them ones... they were good but not as the ones I had in S'pore... I think I missed something.
Thanks for the recipe!
Ciao.

11:51 pm, September 09, 2006  
Anonymous Ellie said...

I'd love the recipe even if it resulted in an awkward lumpy top! These look delicious and I can't wait for you to perfect the recipe so we can all share this yumminess!

10:10 am, September 10, 2006  
Blogger Eggy said...

You sure are industrious, my friend. I am awed. Like everyone else, i'm going say, 'quick post the recipe!'.

12:05 pm, September 10, 2006  
Blogger Steffles said...

Hey J, I never knew the soup from XLB was from jellied stock made from pork rind! (so many things I don't know!!) I'll be interested to find out how you even out the pleats and the dimple. Will look out for your next post!

3:22 pm, September 11, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

Oh my thank you thank you. That's such a great use for pork rind. I've only used it to make crackle and puree it for a cassoulet before.

These hot water doughs are an interesting thing too, I just saw one for a tart with lard melted in the water. Yum.

Bravo x 5

3:31 pm, September 11, 2006  
Anonymous Mae said...

J, only last week, Ian and I introduced our friends to a restaurant we love that serves dumplings/dimsums and they are hooked! I've seen them again since the dinner at a party on Saturday and they couldn't stop talking about it. I promised that i would attempt to make some and invite them round for a dumpling/dimsum evening and here you are, posting these yummy xiao long bao! I most certainly can't wait for the recipe :)

You know, i would love to be on W's place, testing out your wonderful creations, any day!

5:42 pm, September 11, 2006  
Blogger Krithika said...

Look at those pleats ! perfect ! We make something similar with rice flour and a sweet filling. I cannot make these pleats. Do you first pleat and then gather the dough on top ?

9:10 pm, September 11, 2006  
Blogger jy~ said...

OMG is it true that the soup in ALL xiao long baos comes from that jelly-like substance?! Please enlighten me... I've always thought it's pure soup :|

1:06 am, September 12, 2006  
Blogger blister said...

again your exactness reminds me of someone I worked with.... a baker who walked through the bakery and looked at a sheetpan of croissants, picked it up and dumped it in the garbage....the apprentice was confused? the baker beside him whispered "the rows, they weren't straight"
thanks for the delicious post

4:56 am, September 12, 2006  
Anonymous ljoli3 said...

Thanks for the beautiful post. I love these dumplings, especially when they are made with crab and pork- yum! I read on another recipe site how to make these dumplings and there seems to be two ways of working with the gelatin. 1) Wait until the gelatin hardens and then coarsely dice the gelatin to combine with the meat filling or 2) blend the stock and pork rinds together, then let the mixture cool before mixing in the meat filling to be further cooled in the refrigerator. I'm sure all these methods work, so hopefully I will be able to turn out something on our table that will look half as good as yours ;)

7:30 am, September 12, 2006  
Blogger michelle said...

My, what beautiful musings and kitchen trophies I have been missing from your blog while off in my own world ...your steadfast, repeated efforts always culminate in such wonderous things in the kitchen and I am, as always duly impressed. Bravo on everything you've learned and the prizes you've ended up with!

7:56 am, September 12, 2006  
Blogger ParisBreakfasts said...

This is soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo BEAUTIFUL !
MERCI

12:29 am, September 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do tell, where did you get the teapot? Em

1:37 am, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous jane said...

ohhhhh the xiao long bao looks just amazing! would be waiting for the recipe for it! :)

11:34 am, September 15, 2006  
Anonymous eliza said...

wow J, i think you're going to be a perfect xia long bao maker! maybe a stint at din tai fung would help with the perfect recipe, eh?

12:03 am, September 16, 2006  
Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Greetings from sunny Southern California!

Your dumplings are far more beautful than any I've ever managed to make. Please keep us posted on your techniques and results.

- Chubbypanda

9:27 am, September 16, 2006  
Blogger Backyard Chef said...

Beautiful. Great site and wonderful instructions-- I need to make these...and soon!

1:38 am, September 21, 2006  
Blogger Mary said...

I love those little juicy dumplings! They are so delicious. Can't wait to try them on my own, though those pleats look pretty intimidating. Looks like you did a great job.

5:14 am, September 30, 2006  
Blogger joanh said...

wow! new fan of your blog, especially with this post.. it's so great to see the process along with the finished result. beautiful pictures.

11:48 pm, September 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you sooo much!! I studied in Shanghai for four months last year and this little stand at my university's back gate made the most amazing xiao long bao. It's so great to see someone who really knows what it is to appreciate them and how to appreciate them!! But for the full effect, I think I'll just have to go back :)

3:24 pm, August 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your blog! There is a recipe for these in the Saveur archives that parallels your ingredients pretty closely. I'm about to embark on the adventure of creating these and might be skeptical of a recipe from any mag other than Saveur, which I have found to be extremely dependable at publishing authentic recipes.

12:06 am, January 27, 2008  
Blogger crabbe said...

Thank you for this post. I used it for inspiration in my own XLB efforts. I recently blogged about a party we gave involving the making of XLB, and I included for comparison some of your pictures. The posting is here: http://cardhead.livejournal.com/14086.html . if you have any problems with my use of your photos, please let me know and I'll take them down. Cheers,
ric

4:36 am, March 05, 2008  
Anonymous Laura Pinto-Nguyen said...

how lucky am I to have stumbled upon your blog with such awesome tips on making these delicious dumplings...did you ever get to master the recipe? I've been trying to find a recipe for these for a long time.

Peace & Blessings,
Laura
www.creativitywithstamps.typepad.com
www.alifeandartinprogress.blogspot.com

7:15 am, September 17, 2008  
Blogger Haquendazz said...

I'm captivated by Xiao Long Bao ever since I saw the episode of Anthony Bourdain in Shanghai. But I've noticed that there aren't that many recipes available, and I cannot even begin to find one for Kun Tong Bao... sigh. You cover it all so nicely here, I can only hope that you'll be able to put up a recipe sometime... maybe.

2:59 am, November 26, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing the secret recipe of XLB,your pleats sooooo perfect,please post some tutorial picture,step by step ..... thank yoouuuu ....

2:05 am, December 20, 2008  
Anonymous Douglas said...

I've just gotten back from Nanjing after studying there and we fell in love with the Xiao Long Bao shop on campus, but there is nowhere that does fresh dumplings in Australia :(
As soon as a recipe is done I'm jumping right into it!

12:20 pm, February 28, 2011  

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