If you’ve ever been out for dim sum, you’ve likely bitten into some xiao long bao – soup dumplings filled with a nugget of seasoned pork and a burst of warm soup. It’s a staple of Shanghai cuisine and something most people don’t make at home, likely because it’s no easy feat to get soup inside a dumpling. Except that it is – when the stock is chilled and gelled. You add a cube or two of flavourful chicken gel along with your filling, and it reliquefies as the dumplings steam. It’s like molecular gastronomy before that was even a thing.
I was lucky enough to visit Richmond, BC last weekend – it’s part of the Metro Vancouver area, up around the airport – for a couple days of eating with some people in the know. I need a little hand-holding when eating my way around a city with over 400 Asian restaurants, with 200 of them contained within a 3 block strip. With the Asian population and availability of ingredients, there are many who say Richmond has the best Asian food in North America. I’m not going to argue this.
Fascinated with the idea of homemade xiao long bao, I came home and made some rich soup stock, then firmed it up a little with plain gelatin. Most recipes I found online call for this – likely because while a good gelled stock isn’t difficult, it’s also not guaranteed. A little bit of plain gelatin doesn’t change the flavour at all. If you chill a cup or two of stock in a loaf pan, then cut it into strips, you wind up with these snakes of chicken stock I can’t help but play with. They must have potential in other kitchen applications. I wonder what W would say if I sent one to school in his lunch.
I used my usual potsticker filling formula – ground pork with chopped cilantro and green onions, ginger and garlic, soy sauce and a bit of sugar, and a squirt of Sriracha.
Some people make their own hot water dough, but if this seems a little too ambitious, fresh dumpling wrappers are easy to find. They’re dusted with a fine layer of cornstarch to keep them from sticking, which can also keep them from pleating – a quick brush with water prevents this. If you have trouble twisting the little topknot, stick your finger in the water and tap it, then twist and it should stick.
Xiao long bao are most often served right in their bamboo steamers, to keep them hot – there is a technique to eating them without popping one whole in your mouth to have hot soup squirt down your throat. Pick it up with chopsticks by its topknot and set it on (or over) a Chinese soup spoon. Some people poke it in the side, letting the broth leak out into the spoon to cool off a bit before downing all in one bite; others nibble off a bit of the wrapper from one side, then sip the broth out before eating the dumpling. Whatever works. First, dip it in a mixture of soy sauce and rice vinegar, with some finely sliced or grated fresh ginger.
Gung hay fat choy! Happy year of the ram!
Xiao Long Bao
bones of 1 roasted chicken
1 small carrot, cut into chunks
a few slices of ham or Asian-style cured sausage
a few sprigs of cilantro or parsley
1 green onion
big pinch salt
1 Tbsp. plain gelatin
1 lb. ground pork
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (stems too)
2 green onions, finely chopped
2-3 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1-2 garlic cloves, finely crushed
2 tsp. brown sugar
a squirt of Sriracha (to taste)
1 pkg. dumpling wrappers
thinly sliced fresh ginger
dark soy sauce
pinch dried red chili flakes (optional)
To make the stock, combine everything but the gelatin in a medium pot, cover with water and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, without bringing it to a rolling boil, for 30-45 minutes, or until you have a rich-tasting stock. Strain and pour back into the pot. Sprinkle the gelatin overtop (you should have about 2 cups of stock – reduce the gelatin if you have less) and let sit a few minutes to soften. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the gelatin completely. Pour into a loaf pan or other dish and refrigerate until firm.
To make the dumpling filling, combine the ground pork, cilantro, green onions, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, brown sugar and Sriracha, mixing gently with your hands to combine.
When you’re ready to assemble the dumplings, put some water in a small dish and find a clean work surface, like a chopping board. Cut the gelled stock into strips, then into pieces about 1/3-inch square. (If you like, stir the pieces of gelled stock gently into the pork mixture.)
Place a few dumpling wrappers at a time on the board, and brush around the edge with water using a pastry brush or your finger. Place a small spoonful of the pork mixture in the middle of each wrapper, along with a square or two of gelled stock. Gather the dumpling up into the palm of your hand and pleat it all around the edges using your thumb, twisting it in a small topknot at the top to close. If it doesn’t stick (most dumpling wrappers are coated with a layer of cornstarch), add another drop of water.
As you fill them, put them on a parchment-lined sheet and cover with a light towel. Steam over simmering water in a bamboo steamer basket (or in a rice cooker or other steamer), on a layer of parchment, cheesecloth or cabbage leaves, for 12-15 minutes, or until cooked through. For the dipping sauce, mix the ginger with about 2 parts soy sauce to 1 part vinegar, or to taste.
To eat, pick up the soup dumpling by its topknot using chopsticks, and transfer to a Chinese soup spoon. Either poke a hole in the side with your chopstick and let the soup run out into the spoon, or lift it up, bite off one side and sip out the soup, then eat the dumpling.
Makes 2-3 dozen soup dumplings.