By Erika Mathieu
The first time I had a soup dumpling in China, it felt like the smoggy clouds had lifted out of Shanghai’s skies.
I am the farthest thing from an expert on regional Chinese cuisine; and it is worth noting the cultural significance of cuisine cannot be understated, and my sharing this recipe is not to suggest there is any true replacement for the real thing. But it’s kind of the perfect dish.
Originating from the Jiangsu Province in Eastern China, about 300 kilometres from the mega-metropolis of Shanghai, the dish is known by many as a soup dumpling. The literal meaning of xiaolongbao is “little basket bun.” Like a traditional dumpling, a piece of dough is rolled out and filled with meat, usually minced pork and hot, rich broth. Steamed in a bamboo basket, the heat “melts” the broth so when you bite into the dumpling, hot broth escapes the tender filling and chewy dough.
Although some variations of xiaolongbao use leavened dough, most of the varieties I tried used unlevened dough, and are eaten at breakfast time or as a snack. The “soup” portion is made using meat aspic, or meat jelly. Bear with me on this one because it sounds crazier than it is. While pork broth is commonly used in the authentic version, I use chicken as it is readily available and cost-effective.
In my experience, Costco rotisserie chickens produce exceptional aspic.
Make a stock: After removing the meat from the chicken, submerge the bones and skins in a large pot of water and boil aggressively for 2-3 hours. Remove and discard the bones and strain the liquid before adding the stock back to the pot. Add 1 tablespoon of grated garlic, and 1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger, 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar or shaoxing wine, and 2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce. Continue to boil until the liquid has been reduced to about 1-1.5 cups. Pour the reduced liquid into a square dish and refrigerate until set as a jelly. You will need your soup broth in this solid state to prepare the xiaolongbao. Once the aspic is set, cut into small cubes and set aside.
For the dough: mix 6 tablespoons of warm water with 125g of all purpose flour. In China, many cooks hand mix this using a pair of chopsticks before transferring the dough onto a work surface to knead for 15 or so minutes until smooth and soft. Cover the dough with a damp clean tea towel and let rest at least 20 minutes while you prepare the filling.
In a large bowl, mix 1 pound of ground pork with 3-4 finely minced green onions, 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar or shaoxing wine, a pinch of sugar, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tsp of sesame oil, 1 teaspoon of white pepper, and 1 tablespoon each of grated ginger and garlic. Once combined, add the aspic and fold just to combine.
Begin rolling out your dough into 15 gram, thin palm-sized circles, keep the remainder of the dough covered as you work so it does not dry out. Add 1 tablespoon of filling to the middle of the dumpling and fold pleats to seal the filling in. It’s finicky, but if you can manage to fold 18 pleats, you have achieved the desired number of folds. Otherwise, aim for 12-15.
Prepare a bamboo steaming basket and bring a pot of water to a boil, with at least 3 inches of room to ensure the water does not touch the bottom of the basket. Steam 2 inches apart in batches for 8 minutes and then remove the steam basket from the pot.
These dumplings are best enjoyed with a large soup spoon. Puncture a hole in the dumpling and slurp the hot soup, using the spoon to catch the extra broth. Serve with Chinese black vinegar, sliced ginger, and chili oil. These xiaolongbao are a labour of love. Emphasis on both the labour and the love.