Xiao Long Bao: Get in My Belly

Interactive and appetizing, xiao long bao might be the best invention ever to take the form of a dumpling. They also happen to be some of the best comfort food we found in Asia. Homesick? XLB. Sick day? XLB. Tuesday? …you get the idea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB3.jpg” title=”Peeking in” caption=”A scrumptious little pod.” position=”center”]

As one of our most prized food discoveries, we ate a lot of xiao long bao in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It’s a pretty straightforward dish: Little pouches of dough filled with meat and broth, neatly pinched together at the top, and steamed in wooden baskets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB8.jpg” title=”Swirls of yum” caption=”Pinched to perfection – consistent and delicate.” position=”center”]

The dumplings are filled with aromatic meat mixed with gelatinized pork stock that liquifies on cooking, transforming into a delicious savory broth. Aside from the pork-filled XLB, other popular types include crab meat, crab roe (or a mix of crab and pork), and varieties that include salted duck egg yolk.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB1.jpg” title=”A skill we need to master” caption=”XLB being made at Lin Long Fang, Shanghai.” position=”center”]

Once they’re assembled the soup dumplings are steamed in bamboo baskets. Often the baskets will come lined – if not, the dumplings might stick and rupture and you’ll miss out on the savory broth. Hell hath no white-hot fury like a XLB addict whose broth has been carelessly spilled in the basket.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB4.jpg” title=”Be verrry careful with these” caption=”Dumplings at Lin Long Fang – notice the lack of liner.” position=”center”]

The skin of the xiao long bao is really important. In the best examples the skin is pinched in such a way that the top isn’t too doughy, and the rest of it is tender, smooth, and translucent. Elasticity is also key – there should be a bit of “give”, but the skin should be strong enough to hold the broth and meat inside without breaking.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB10.jpg” title=”Sagging with soup” caption=”The skin is *just* strong enough to hold the broth in.” position=”center”]

If you’ve never tried xiao long bao before, the Taiwanese chain of Din Tai Fung restaurants is a good place to start. They have a Michelin star and locations in over ten countries, including the USA (LA and Seattle).

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB5.jpg” title=”This is how you know you’ve arrived” caption=”The Din Tai Fung mascot, whose head begs to be eaten.” position=”center”]

Their Michelin status does make their food a bit expensive (and you’ll probably have to wait in line), but boy do they know how to make a soup dumpling.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB6.jpg” title=”Small servings – DTF” caption=”Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung.” position=”center”]

Upon trying xiao long bao for the first time you’ll notice that everyone eats them differently. If you pop the whole dumpling in your month willy-nilly you’ll likely be scalded by piping hot soup, and besides, these things should be savored if you’re to fully embrace the XLB experience.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB2.jpg” title=”Bright hot red” caption=”A side of chili sauce adds a spicy kick.” position=”center”]

Regardless of your consumption method, start by adding soy sauce and vinegar (3 parts vinegar, one part soy) to a small dish of finely shredded ginger. From there, anything goes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB7.jpg” title=”User guide” caption=”Din Tai Fung’s recommended method of consumption.” position=”center”]

My approach is something like this:

  1. Start by putting scooping some of the vinegar/soy sauce into the spoon.
  2. Pick up a dumpling with chopsticks and place it in the spoon.
  3. Bite a small hole in the dumpling.
  4. Pick up the dumpling with chopsticks and pour the broth into the spoon with the vinegar and soy.
  5. Drink the broth.
  6. Dip the dumpling, hole-first, into the vinegar and soy mixture.
  7. Place it back in the spoon.
  8. Finally, eat the dumpling in one bite.

This method basically ignores the ginger and achieves a high sauce-to-dumpling ratio. Drinking the broth separately also reduces risk of bodily harm since it gives the dumpling some time to cool down.

Eric’s approach is closer to Din Tai Fung’s recommended method:

  1. Pick up dumpling with chopsticks, dunk in vinegar/soy mixture.
  2. Place in spoon.
  3. Bite (or poke hole with chopsticks) in dumpling.
  4. Allow broth to drain into spoon.
  5. Optional: Add a few slivers of ginger.
  6. Consume.

Eric views the sauce as a mere accompaniment to the dumpling, allowing more of the subtle flavors to shine through.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB9.jpg” title=”Cheaper than DTF” caption=”Ming Yue Tang Bao in Taipei is more affordable than Din Tai Fung – and just as good!” position=”center”]

However you decide to eat them, the important thing is that you eat them often and in great numbers. May the soup be with you.

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