The Cronut of the Dumpling World
What’s That ? | Xiao Long Bao
Like meat on a stick, the culinary concept of meat stuffed in a dough pocket is a fairly common one. There exist a multitude of dumpling variations from around the world: Italian ravioli, Japanese gyoza, Polish pierogi, Tibetan momo, Indian samosa, Latin American empanada, Korean mandu and dozens more.
On the vast plane of dumplings, there is one variation that stands above the rest: Xiao Long Bao - the Shanghainese soup dumpling. It does something that no other dumpling dares: it incorporates a warm broth inside of the dumpling.
Curious? Below we’ll explain what it is, where it came from, how to eat it, what separates the good from the bad, and where to find it.
What is Xiao Long Bao?
Xiao Long Bao, 小笼包, or XLB as the cool kids call it, is a Chinese delicacy. The name translates to "Little Cage Bun.” XLB consists of a ground pork filling swimming in a soup broth, all bundled inside a nearly-translucent, steamed dough wrapper.
From a technical perspective, the perfect Xiao Long Bao must balance a tricky situation. If the skin is too thin or delicate, the dumpling will rip apart, leak or even dissolve. If the dumpling is too thick, it renders the dumpling too doughy and difficult to eat.
XLB is typically served in dim sum restaurants. A set of four to eight dumplings sitting in a bamboo steamer arrive at the table accompanied by a sauce plate with black vinegar and shredded ginger. It’s a time-intensive delicacy for just $5-10, depending on the ingredients.
Where does Xiao Long Bao come from?
The legend goes that XLB was invented in the Nanxiang neighborhood of Shanghai in 1875. When restaurateur Huang Mingxian saw that competition for steamed buns was heating up, he started working on a new offering.
Huang took minced pork and added a gelatinized soup stock that would liquify when heated. Then he put the mixture in a thin dough wrapper and closed it with fourteen pleats at the top of the dumpling.
Huang’s soup dumpling debuted as an instant success. As the Dominique Ansel cronut / Magnolia Bakery cupcake / Shake Shack burger of its day, Huang’s XLB enjoyed rampant word of mouth, a devout fanbase, long lines, and endless debate of how it was made.
While the myth may have relaxed some truths, the Shanghai government declared Xiao Long Bao to be one of its 83 “protected traditional treasures.”
How to Eat It?
Due to the delicate nature of the soup dumpling, one’s timing, finesse, dexterity and patience all play a role in where the dumpling ends up between the table and your mouth.
Have no fear - follow these instructions and you’ll be eating XLB like a champ.
Timing - the XLB will arrive at the table in a steamer and it is guaranteed to be too hot to eat. It’s a rookie mistake to grab a soup dumpling too early and scald one’s mouth. At the same time, it’s a shameful waste to wait so long that the dumpling cools, broth solidifies and skin hardens or sticks to the steamer. My rule of thumb for the ideal time window to eat an XLB: between 60 seconds - 4 minutes of its arrival at the table.
Eating Technique - this is a two-handed operation, requiring chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Place the XLB into a soup spoon. Pros grab the knot at the top and gently place it on a nearby spoon.
Gently dab the dumpling into the vinegar and return it to the soup spoon.
Place a little fresh ginger on top of the dumpling
Bite the top of the dumpling and suck out the soup. Careful not to burn your mouth!
Eat the rest of the dumpling - typically 1 - 2 bites.
How to Tell a Good XLB from a Bad One?
There are four signs to look if you want to evaluate the quality of your Xiao Long Bao.
Number of folds - the original had 14. Some say that 18 is the magic number to attain. The pleats demonstrate the strength of the dough and the care invested in the dumpling.
Translucent skin - the thinner the dumpling skin, the more skillful the chef. If you can almost see the filling through the exterior, you have an impressive XLB in front of you. Just be careful not to rip it.
Resilient structure - you should be able to lift the top of the XLB without it breaking. If it tears, that is a sign that the skin is too thin or there is too much filling. Ideally there is about half a tablespoon of soup in each dumpling.
Taste and texture - The soup and filling should be delicious, fresh and maintain a non-squishy texture.
Where to Find Soup Dumplings?
If you don’t have a steamer, the ingredients, or the two days of kitchen time required to make your own XLB, here’s where to find some great Xiao Long Bao on a Sidewalk.
Why: The walk visits Shanghai Asian Cuisine, a restaurant with 3 variations on XLB, the star of the show is the decadent soup dumplings with black truffles.
Why: The Sidewalk celebrates the Hang Ah Tea Shop, the oldest dim sum restaurant in the United States. It was opened in 1920, just months before the Nom Wah Tea Parlor in NYC opened.
Why: ROC from chef Perry Cheung serves 10 types of Xiao Long Bao on the menu that vary in meat ingredients. Try the dungeness crab & pork XLB.
What’s That? is a series that celebrates experiencing the different and familiar, whether it is an object, food, custom, artistic style or type of architecture. In each edition, we introduce an item and explain how to appreciate it and why it’s important. Why? Because, being cultured is cool. Ideas or requests? Let us know on our Facebook Page or in the comments section below.