One of the great joys of living in Shanghai is the availability of 小笼包, or xiaolongbao. Literally translated as “small basket buns,” these beloved snacks are more commonly known as soup dumplings. They are a Shanghainese specialty and the other day I set out to learn how to make them.
I attended a two-hour class at the Chinese Cooking Workshop dedicated solely to making xiaolongbao. In a previous cooking class we made two different kinds of dumplings, but xiaolongbao are so special and difficult to make they get two hours unto themselves.
After donning our aprons in the light-filled space, our instructor, Mike, explained the secret behind the juicy little buns. You start by preparing the dough, made from wheat flour and water. After getting the ingredients properly mixed – the dough can’t be too wet or too dry – you roll it and knead it until perfectly smooth, then roll and cover in plastic wrap to prevent drying out.
The filling was easier to assemble, mostly because the key ingredient had been prepared for us in advance: pork jelly. The gelatinous white substance, made from pork skin, ultimately melts into the soupy broth for which xiaolongbao are known. We seasoned the ground pork and pork jelly with rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, sugar, white pepper, grated ginger and chopped green onions. It is important to mix well, although stirring in only one direction will result in the optimal texture.
The individual dumpling wrappers are made by rolling the dough into a log and cutting off eight uniform pieces. These are then pressed into perfect circles. Mike whipped his out in seconds while the rest of us struggled to get the dimensions just right. Once we had our wrappers made, we filled them with a spoonful of the meat mixture and tried to close them to Mike’s exacting standards. The key is to fold and pinch the wrapper closed, making sure that each fold is the same size. The end result should be round with even pleats, and a small hole in the top to let steam escape during cooking. Without the hole, the dumplings might burst and lose their soup. Needless to say, the folding and pinching was more challenging than it sounds.
Once all eight – or in my case, seven – dumplings were ready, we placed them in bamboo baskets lined with vented rice paper to keep them from sticking to the bottom. The baskets were stacked and placed in boiling water for 10 minutes. Then it was time to eat! All but three of my xiaolongbao had lost their precious soup, and I hadn’t used enough meat filling so the result was a little doughy. Mike’s, on the other hand, were spectacular. Din Tai Fung won’t be calling me anytime soon, but with a little practice I may be able to impress my hubby. Now all I need is the bamboo basket.
Chinese Cooking Workshop Address: 2 Dongping Lu, Shanghai, China Pricing: most dim sum classes are 150 RMB per person (24 USD)