Xiaolongbao – those tiny round dumplings that visitors to Taipei go ga-gaa about, that have made the Taiwanese Din Tai Fung restaurant chain legendary, and encouraged people to return to read this blog. I had always wondered how to make these intricate money bags, and then I got my chance when I organised a private cooking class with Chef Jin.
Chef Jin was formerly an executive chef at the Shangrila Hotel in Shanghai. A friend of Mr Taiwanxifu, I was able to twist his arm and convince him to teach a group of close friends how to cook some Chinese dishes the proper way. While claiming (repeatedly) that he was not a dumpling expert, he clearly knew what he was doing.
What I have always referred to as ‘xiaolongbao’ (小籠包)are actually really ‘xiaolong tangbao’ (小籠湯包). There are in fact two versions of this dumpling: the first is a yeast-leavened bun made in northern China, while the latter (now the more famous) hails from Wuxi and is made with a flour and water skin and filled with a soupy-pork mixture. It is the ‘soup’ (the tang) that is prized, and there is (as Chef Jin taught up) an art to making the soup.
Chef Jin also shared with us that these xiaolong tangbao were created in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi. A prosperous area, it developed a flourishing night (and drinking) culture. Feeling a bit ordinary the next day was not uncommon. So people developed these ‘sweet’ steamed pork buns, which helped overcome the bitter taste in the mouth that you wake up with after a night on the town (we all gasped as he added the sugar). Wow! What a hangover cure.
Chef Jin is instinctive with measurements (as most good chefs and cooks are), so he would just pour in a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, as we watched and asked questions. But I have provided ‘guestimates’ of measurements based on what we observed.
1 kg of pork belly
1.5 l to 2 l of water
- Steam the pork belly in the water for 3-4 hours. Remove the fat, strain the liquid and chill. (Freeze if not using immediately.)
- This will form into a gelatinous block, which is then cut up to add to the pork mixture. Chef Jin demonstrated, by flipping the pieces as if they were a pancake, how the aspic jelly has an elasticity that you would not get with gelatine. This is the texture that makes a good ‘soup’ in the dumplings.
- To use, defrost if frozen and slice the pork jelly block into small pieces around 0.5cm thick (or less).
The meat filling
1kg pork mince
3 shallots, finely chopped
3cm ginger, finely chopped
4 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup or more white wine (preferably a ‘yellow’ wine such as a Western style white wine)
Dash of soy sauce
1 cup cold water (approximately)
- Put the pork mince in a large bowl. Add the shallots, ginger, sugar and soy sauce. Stir to combine.
- Note: it is important to stir in one direction. Chef Jin stirred in a clock-wise direction using chopsticks. He said this is essential to ensure that the meat maintains elasticity.
- Add the dash of soy sauce, some wine and a few tablespoons of the water. Continue to stir vigorously in the same direction, slowly adding more water. Stir for around 5 minutes, then add the soup jelly cubes and continue to stir rapidly.
- The mixture will expand as the water is combined with the meat. Chef Jin said that you know when it is ready because when you stop mixing it, the meat will ‘move into’ the spoon. An analogy is I guess beating cream, and you know when things have been fully combined because the cream leaves a trail on itself.
- You can use this mixture directly if the dough is ready, or else return to the fridge and allow it to sit for a while.
500g plain flour (medium flour)
1/2 cup (approx) water
- Place the plain flour in a bowl. Slowly combine the water, then knead for around five minutes. The mixture is quite stiff, yet still wet on the outside.
- Put aside to rest for around 30 minutes.
- Remove the mixture onto a floured surface. Cut in half, then mould into a long sausage.
- Cut the sausage into small coin pieces, less than 1cm in width. Gently rolls them all in flour to coat.
- There is a knack to rolling the dumpling skin. First, press the dumpling down with your palm to flatten. Pick up a piece of dough with your left hand, holding at the top (not the middle). Then take a small rolling pin (the type sold in Asian grocery stores), and start rolling inwards with your right hand. Without the rolling pin leaving the surface, use your left hand to rotate the dough. Continue flicking the dough around this way, until you have a perfectly round disc. The trick is for the centre of the disc to be thick, while the edges are thinner. This technique is the same as for Shengjian bao.
To fill the dumplings
- Pick up a circle of dumpling skin. Using a knife, plop a tablespoon or so of mixture into the centre. Gently press/spread the meat mixture down into the pastry skin with the knife.
- Continue holding the mixture cradled in your left hand. Then with your right hand, start making folds in the pastry moving in a counter-clockwise direction. The Din Tai Fung standard is to make 18 chrysanthemum folds in each dumpling; Chef Jin made over twenty in each, while I struggled to get to 16. Finish off by twisting the dumpling in the same direction.
To cook the dumplings
- Lightly oil a dumpling dish, or else line a bamboo steamer with paper. Gently place the dumplings into the base of the steamer, making sure that they are not so close together that they will stick (unlike Shengjianbao, they are not yeasted but they will still expand slightly when steamed). Steam at a high heat for eight to ten minutes.
- Serve as soon as they come out of the steamer with a soy dipping sauce and shredded ginger.