The first time I had Xiao Long Bao, or Shanghai steamed soup dumplings, I nearly obliterated all my taste buds. I wasn't really educated on how to properly eat them. I was at a popular hole-in-a-wall restaurant where workers didn't speak much English to warn me on the severity of potential burns from these amazingly delicious but deadly steamed dumplings full of scalding soup. Eager to try them, I popped one in my mouth and the scorching hot soup exploded and nearly destroyed all sensations of taste. It took me a few moments to recompose myself and wipe away the tears. The wiser me allowed the dumplings to cool a bit before I attempted a second go. Once I did, I fell in love.
Xiao Long Bao, also known XLB for short or Little Dragon Buns for a literal translation, are steamed dumplings made of ground pork and pork broth. The common question with XLB is how they get the broth inside the dumpling. The answer fascinated me and many others. To get the broth inside the dumpling, the pork broth is made ahead of time from slowly simmering pork bones with skin on them. The broth is then chilled and the gelatin from the pork skins solidifies the pork broth. It is cubed up then mixed together with the ground pork filling. The filling is encased into a thin flour wrapper and then steamed in a bamboo basket.
In most restaurants, the steamed dumplings are served directly from the steamer baskets and served with a side of black vinegar.
To properly eat the dumpling without a trip to the Burn Unit, gently grab the dumpling with a pair of chop sticks. Give it a quick dip in the black vinegar sauce then transfer it onto a soup spoon. The soup spoon will capture any soup that spills out. The dumpling is HOT so give it a few seconds to cool down slightly. Take a small nibble to release some of the hot steam. Carefully pop the whole dumpling in your mouth and savor the goodness. Boom. You're welcome.
Xiao Long Bao Recipe (Chinese Soup Dumpling)
Makes about 48 dumplings
1 pound pork bones
1 pig's foot (have butcher cut into small pieces)
3-5 scallions (cut into 1-inch pieces)
2 large knobs ginger, (size of thumb; unpeeled, thinly slice into strips)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine)
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/3 cup more for dusting
1-1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-1/4 pounds ground pork shoulder
1-3/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1-1/4 teaspoons sugar
1-1/4 teaspoons Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine)
1-1/4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
3 scallions (finely chopped)
1 garlic clove (finely grated)
3/4 teaspoon grated ginger
3/4 teaspoon black or white pepper
1/3 cup black vinegar
Place pork bones into a stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Cook for about 2 minutes or until foam starts to float to the top. Empty the content of the pot into a colander and rinse the bones thoroughly with cold water. Clean the pot thoroughly as well.
Return the cleaned pork bones back into the cleaned stock pot. Add scallions, ginger, wine, and water. Bring the pot to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer. Occasionally skim the surface of any foam that floats to the top to keep the stock clear. Simmer on low for about 1.5 hours or until liquid reduces to half.
Season with salt.
Strain liquid into a 13x9 inch baking dish and discard the solids. Cover with plastic and chill until set (at least two hours).
Once set, cut a crosshatch pattern into the jellied soup.
In a stand mixer with a hook attachment, mix together the flour, water and vegetable oil. Kneed on low until the dough comes together into a soft ball that pulls cleanly away from the sides of the mixing bowl. The dough should be soft, supple and smooth.
Cover with plastic and let it rest for one hour.
In a small bowl, mix together everything (the pork shoulder, salt, soy sauce, sugar, wine, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, ginger and pepper) until it forms a homogenous paste.
Add the cubed pork soup into the filling and mix until combined.
Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Make sure to always keep the unused dough covered with plastic. Otherwise it will dry out very quickly. Roll out each piece of dough into a foot-long rope. Cut the rope into 12 equal segments. Roll each segment into a ball.
Working with one piece of dough at a time while the rest are covered in plastic, lightly dust the dough and your work surface with flour to prevent sticking. Use a dowel or a rolling pin to flatten each ball dough into a disk. Roll out the dough so that the center is a little thick while the edges are very thin. The thicker center will keep the stuffing from falling out and the thin edges are key to the perfect texture.
To the center of each wrapper, scoop about 1 tablespoon of filling, making sure to also include the jellied soup. Gently pull up the edges of the wrapper and use your thumb and index finger to make as many pleats as you can around the filling.
Place the pleated dumpling in the palm of your hand and use your other hand to pull together the pleated edges. Then give the dumpling a gently twist and pinch to seal.
Spray the bottom of a steamer with nonstick cooking oil spray. Alternatively, you can line the bottom of the steamer with a few leaves of Napa cabbage or use parchment paper. Place the dumplings inside the steamer, with 1 inch spacing all around.
Place the steamer into a large skillet of boiling water. Make sure no water touches the bottom of the dumpling. Steam each batch of dumplings for about 10 minutes.
Serve directly from the steamer with a side of black vinegar dipping sauce. Savor the goodness and reevaluate why you just put yourself through this instead of going to your local Shanghai Dumpling restaurant.