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In Search of Xiaolongbao

In Shanghai people are busy eating. I walk to the Bund and see a policeman slurping noodles upon a staircase. A mother feeds her baby rice on a stoop in Tianzifang. Students bicycle down Nanjing Road, fried breadsticks in hand. It is making me hungry. The snack stalls I pass on the way to meet my companion, Zhu, at Yuyuan Gardens aren’t helping. From their mysterious, cramped interiors I can smell fried dumplings, scallion pancakes, and pork bāozi. I’ve promised Zhu, however, not to indulge on my own. I hasten my steps, mouth watering, in hopes that he’s got something appetizing ready for us.    

Just as I enter the tea house where we agreed to convene Zhu pulls me out. “We’re not eating?” I ask, dismayed. “I’m starving!”

“We’re not eating here,” he clarifies.


“No, no, you don’t want to dine at this place. I’ll show you better. You’ll weep about it for weeks after.” He steers me out of the bustling square, down two side streets, away from the elders huddled over clicking tiles. We duck into what I assume is a drain conduit but inexplicably opens into someone’s courtyard. We zigzag through connecting enclosures to exit at a cul-de-sac whose main occupant is a steaming shack lit by a single dangling bulb. Four others crowd mutely around a woman busy ladling tiny dumplings into cardboard egg containers. As soon as she fills a carton it is seized, the snatcher scurrying past us. Soon we are left alone in the blind alley. When she closes the lid on her next batch Zhu pays her. He escorts me against the wall, opens the box carefully. “Do you know what these are?” he whispers.

“Something I can eat, hopefully,” I mutter.

The right corner of his lip curls in contempt. “Xiaolongbao!” My hand goes to grab one of the miniature dough purses nestled in its holder. He shuts the cover on my advancing fingers, moves the package from my reach. “Tsk!” He sucks against his palate. “Don’t be impatient!” I fold my arms. “There’s a way to eat these.” He extracts two pairs of chopsticks from his inner coat pocket. “Pick up soup dumpling from its neck. Bite top off. Suck soup out from opening. Eat rest in one piece.” He demonstrates. I follow his advice, peering in after tearing the top. Marinated meat swims in a shimmering, greasy liquid.

“Oh, there’s soup inside!” I exclaim, astounded. I slurp out the hot, porky fluid. It burns my tongue, my cheeks, my throat in a flavorful surge. “This is amazing!” I tell him. The dumpling itself is thickly sheathed, chewy, gingery. I gobble up the xiaolongbao, jowls working to accommodate the oozing heat. “How on earth does she get the soup in here?”

“You’ll find out at next stop,” he says. Our meal ended, we emerge through the warren onto the western gate of Yuyuan. The streets are livelier here with tea shops, jewelry boutiques, and restaurants. Men stroll up and down, caged birds in tow. Tucked in between a tobacco vendor and a slipper store is a convenience mart. We wend our way through the aisles then pass through a back door into a paved quadrangle. Patio chairs surround a few potted bonsai. In the center is a neon lit hut manned by three ladies. One pummels dough, the second scoops cubed jellies onto steamers, the third stacks the bamboo vessels by the open window. We approach like worshippers to a temple. “See the transparent, wobbling squares?” Zhu inquires of me. “That’s the soup part. They wrap those. When they steam the dumpling it liquifies.”

“Brilliant. Whoever thought up the idea…brilliant.” We get two orders of xiaolongbao, each served in a ramekin accompanied by a ceramic duck spoon. These are larger than the previous ones, palm-sized. They jiggle drunkenly under the weight of their innards. Twisted into a pleated peak, the casing is a gauze I feel will implode at the lightest touch.

“For this, poke a hole at bottom to let out soup. Drink from cup. Eat.” I watch Zhu perform the steps, mimicking him. The broth is earthy, seasoned with kelp and lemongrass; the wrapper dissolves; the airy stuffing clings to my teeth in pasty tenderness.

“Wow…mmm,” I mumble.

“You like it?”


“Better than the first?”

I reflect. “Well, no…I mean…they’re both yummy…though the skin on this is so delicate. How does she manage that?”

“She’s the daughter.”

Zhu nods. “The one whose dumplings you just ate, this is her child.”

“Why don’t they work together?” He shrugs. “Can you ask her?” He lumbers towards the counter, leans in. He converses with the cook shaping the coagulated flour. I slink up behind.

“She says she got kicked out because she didn’t want to make traditional xiaolongbao.”

“Her mother didn’t want to sell both?” I ask. Zhu translates.

“Her ma is dedicated to maintaining the honored method.”

“Has she ever tasted these?”


“She’s missing out.” Rolling out her discs, the owner smiles wryly. She speaks to Zhu.

“Her mother blames her for people preferring this version.”

“So the mom’s dumplings are authentic?”

“What’s authentic?” Zhu counters. “Is there such a thing?”

I ponder this. “Isn’t there? The first xiaolongbao ever made is the standard.”

“For what? Nobody can replicate that, not even the man in Nanxiang who invented them.”

“You’re claiming authenticity doesn’t exist?”

“Not in food. Not in culture.”

“Because of globalization.”

“No. Human nature. It’s in our DNA to tinker with technique.”

“What about sustaining a certain level of geographic accuracy?”

“Time evolves all processes. Climate changes, landscape alters, so ingredients adapt.”

“You don’t admire those who try to preserve historical recipes?”

“Which should be protected? Which respected? Pizza was sweet before Italians imported tomato; egg tarts came to China by way of Portugal; chili peppers were introduced to Asia from Mexico. A lot of cuisines seem iconic in our time, but they’ve progressed from what they were a millennia ago, a century ago, twenty years ago.”

Zhu’s statement lays bare my blind spot. I realize I have been focusing on an idea that doesn’t exist, that I cannot even properly define. I reconsider the dishes I have consumed in my travels: the pre-Incan-Spanish-Japanese melange of Peruvian fare, the French-Chinese influence in Cambodian courses, the melting pot of American menus. Food has always been communal, multicultural. Despite the innumerable schools and books about the subject, cooking has never tolerated precepts or dictates. It has experimented, shared, innovated. Long before we were adjusting to the digital revolution, travelers were exchanging recipes, traders were introducing ingredients, chefs were expanding boundaries.

Consuming the two xiaolongbao, listening to the mother-daughter conflict, I know I have to realign my concepts about cultural authenticity. My search for understanding a geography through its culinary terrain can no longer be as simple as rooting out local flavors. There is history I am ignoring by sticking to provenance. There are nuances I am missing when I prioritize particular customs. Rather than a delectable introduction to a destination, food is a complex deep-dive into our collective troubled past. I have to be willing to go on that journey.

More soup dumplings rise out of the boiling water. The three ladies joke, pack, roll. Customers trickle in. I think about that other dead-end where a similar scene plays out. Two talented women, two exceptional treats. “Zhu,” I request, “can you tell her that I’m happy she forged out on her own? I hope both her mother and she stay in business.” He confers with the proprietor.

“She says she’s happy too and wishes the same.” Twisting her circles of filled buns, the lady grins at me. There is no authentic xiaolongbao in Shanghai. There are only delicious varieties.


Serves ~40 dumplings                Total Time: 2 hours 30 minutes [1 hour preparation; 1 hour 30 minutes cooking]


Ingredients for soup:

500 ml (2 cups) vegetable stock

½ teaspoon agar powder

Ingredients for wrapper:

145 g (1 ¾ cup) bread flour

75 ml (⅓ cup) water

½ teaspoon salt

Ingredients for filling:

40 g (¼ cup) shredded carrot

55 g (¼ cup) chopped celery

50 g (½ cup) of shredded cabbage

½ teaspoon minced ginger

75 g (½ cup) chopped onion

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Salt and pepper to taste


For the gelatin:

  1. In a medium pot combine vegetable stock and agar. Heat over medium-high heat and stir for 5-10 minutes or until the powder completely dissolves.
  2. Pour the broth into a container and refrigerate for 40 minutes or as long as it takes for the gel to set.
  3. When ready, dice gelatin into small pieces. Set aside.

For the wrapping:

  1. In a mixing bowl add the ½ teaspoon of salt to the bread flour, which is high in protein and can hold in the soup without becoming soggy. Whisk to combine.*
  2. Pour in a couple of tablespoons of water and mix into the flour. Keep adding the rest of the water slowly to the flour as it thickens.
  3. Start kneading until all the flour has become dough. Transfer this to a flat surface that has been sprinkled lightly with flour. Continue kneading until dough is smooth and bounces back when poked. Cover with damp cloth and let sit for 30 minutes to allow for even hydration.
  4. Shape and pull ball of dough with hands into a cylinder of approximately 3 centimeters (~1 ¼ inches) in diameter. Cut strip into even pieces about 2.5 centimeters (~ 1 inch) each.
  5. Lightly sprinkle flour over the slices. Using a rolling pin flatten and roll into discs which are about 3 ¼ – 4 centimeters (~ 8-10 inches) in diameter. Press out the edges of the discs so that they are thinner than the center to ensure the soup will not leak.

For the filling:

  1. Place sauté pan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles in it. Pour in cooking oil. Stir in ginger and onions. Allow to cook for 5 minutes or until onions are sweating.
  2. Add in carrots and celery for 2 minutes, or when celery is soft. Add in shredded cabbage, salt, and pepper for another 2 minutes, or until cabbage is wilted. Mix everything well.
  3. Set aside filling to cool at room temperature.

For the dumpling:

  1. In a large bowl, combine your vegetable filling with your gelatin chunks. Lightly hand toss so that they become one mixture.
  2. Gently holding a wrapper in one hand, scoop in a tablespoon of filling and gelatin into the middle of the circle.
  3. Lift up a section of the casing’s edge with your index finger and thumb. Pinch it against the neighboring rim to form a fold. Continue pleating all the way around until you have a pouch with a small opening. Twist and nip the hole closed. This will be the most difficult and time consuming portion.
  4. Repeat the above two steps for each bun you wish to make or until all the wrappers are filled.
  5. Line a steamer with cabbage leaves, then place your dumplings inside the basket 1 ¼ centimeters (~ ½ inch) apart.
  6. Steam dumplings over boiling water for 5-8 minutes, or until they become puffy and translucent. The soup inside should turn into liquid.
  7. Serve promptly with a side of soy sauce and grated ginger. Enjoy. Please warn guests that the interiors of the dumplings will be hot!

* BT Tip: If you do not want to knead and roll your own dough, purchase wonton wrappers as an easy substitute.

119 replies »

  1. Soooooo hungry! Thank you for another vegetarian alternative to something I wouldn’t be able to eat otherwise! You are champion!

    P/S Love the story in the telling … you speak to the question we discuss often in our household. Is authenticity overrated????

    • 🤓 I love that the concept of authenticity in food is a household discussion for you! Is there an overall consensus? While I seek out local flavors in my travels more often than packaged fast-food fare, I am still unsure about what authenticity really means when it comes to food.

      • No consensus exactly, just many lively discussions! Even my very fastidious mother will use “short cuts “ these days, and I would say she cooks very authentically! So I think it all comes down to capturing the spirit of dish in mind!

  2. Agar powder in this recipe performs a magic trick! Imagine the mind that figured out how to serve soup in a closed pastry wrapper/dumpling. Clever! Now I must figure out where in Toronto (an hour from me) I might go to find some of these ingenious morsels.

    • Ingenious! I couldn’t stop exclaiming about how brilliant the inventor of this particular dumpling was. Hope you are able to find a place in Toronto that serves these!

  3. We’re lucky enough to have a restaurant in Portland that makes a version – it’s called XLB. Thanks for the recipe, now I just need to find a gluten free wrapper recipe. As for the “what is authentic?” question, interesting, I can see that opening a can of worms for any number of topics. The benefit of this topic is research can be so enjoyable.

    • “The benefit of this topic is research can be so enjoyable.” And delicious! You’re so fortunate to have a restaurant offering xiaolongbao nearby. I haven’t tried this recipe, but perhaps it can help you with the wonton wrapper portion:
      Certainly, authenticity is a term that seems to have different definitions according to who one talks to and also depends on the time frame one thinks of. An authentic medieval recipe is not the same as an authentic Roman-era recipe or one pre-colonialism.

  4. What a wonderfully insightful post!
    And I would absolutely love to try these.
    You truly had an amazing adventure.
    Thank you for taking us along with you!

  5. Even after eating plenty of xiaolongbao, I never had any idea how the soup was made! I was a picky taster of these dumplings, liking some and not others. I wonder if it was a generational thing?! Haha – just kidding about that; the truth is that I dislike pork and porky-tasting soup, so that ruled out a lot of these for me. Great story about the differences in technique, though, and the further ruminations on culinary cross-pollination.

    • I don’t think you’re preferring some xiaolongbao to others is a generational thing. Having tasted some of the varieties, and seen how they were made I can say that the thickness of the wrapper, the sort of flour used to make it, and the broth for the soup gelatin really affect the taste. If you don’t enjoy pork, then I can understand how most xiaolongbao wouldn’t be something you sought out, since they are usually made using pork broth and filling.

  6. In America, people are food obsessed but not in a good way (I don’t think)–maybe that’s why obsess and obese are so much alike. So much of our food here is garbage: high in fat, carbs, sugar and salt, but low in nutrition. I am a vegan and have been vegetarian/vegan for over 40 years and am now gluten free too, so my diet is pretty restrictive, but where I live now it’s hard to find good vegetables. I wish I could move back where I had more access to freshly grown veggies. But I agree, we humans much grow with our food and cultures…and work with what we have. We may be in for a rude awakening one day when the access to meat is no longer there….I look forward to the day.

    • What we eat is most definitely tied to the culture in which we live. As more people, regardless of geography, seek out ways to incorporate more vegetables and fruit and local ingredients into their diets, I think the variety and abundance of those types of food will increase as well. But, this does take effort and time from us as individuals, and a desire to expand our palates. Access to healthy produce is sadly an issue in so many parts of the world. I’m sorry I haven’t offered a gluten-free wrapper in my recipe, but (though I haven’t tried this one) I did find one online that may be useful:
      As for freshly grown vegetables, another blogger ( kindly sent me this lovely Youtube link about an Arizona man’s incredible edible garden, which I think is very inspiring, so I wanted to share it with you:

  7. A beautifully written piece of art, for Chinese cuisine is absolutely artistic, and the xiaolongbao (小笼包) one of the most sought-after pieces of such art anywhere 🙂 As you have written so well, and Zhu is right, after tasting those delicacies one will dream about them many times in the days/months/year after. You have me dreaming of returning back to China for a sampling after this write up to learn more about them ~ “There is no authentic xiaolongbao in Shanghai. There are only delicious varieties.” I would like to try all varieties 🙂 Wonderful photography and words ~ cheers to a great spring ahead.

    • Thank you Randall. Chinese cuisine is so diverse and flavorful and as you say, artistic. It was a true joy to watch masters adeptly folding, stuffing, and flipping on my travels in China. I still dream about wandering those tiny alleys to a dead-end where the pleasing scent of cooking soup dumplings greets me. I had never heard nor tasted xiaolongbao (小笼包) before my Shanghai trip, but now it seems they are gaining a bit of celebrity status thanks to a Taiwanese restaurant chain named Din Tai Fung. Happy spring to you!

      • I actually have a bit of a ‘love – hate’ relationship with them… I do not like “temperature hot” things (takes me forever to drink a cup of coffee), and those xiaolongbaos often were just too piping hot for me to enjoy 🙂 Still ~ I loved watching everyone enjoy them. Cheers!

  8. This is wonderful! I love the mother-daughter story and your cultural analysis of food and its constant evolution. So true. Food is a window into the history of a culture, but it has layers of flavor and meaning!

  9. Luckily we have had lunch as we read this beautifully written treatise on “authentic food” and a multigenerational xialongbao. Thank you for giving us yet another reason to visit Shanghai!

    I think you raise a very interesting point about the concept of authentic recipes. I would say that, the issue is not about the authentic recipe, as much as about “the original recipe”. As Zhu points out, it is the nature of culinary reality, that every chef will by definition, innovate, tweak, adjust, to his/her ingredients, climate, etc. Yet, there IS such a thing as the original xialongbao. It may not be more authentic than subsequent xialongbaos, but it is appropriate and germain to recognize the point of origin. Being French, I am sensitive to this notion of original/authentic recipes, because the French have long fought a battle against global homogenous cooking at the detriment of local/regional specialties. The French have a interesting term, “patrimoine”, which loosely translates as “cultural assets/inheritance.” One can innovate without dissing the original recipe. Kudos to the mom for sticking to her guns and equal kudos to the daughter for leaping into the great unknown of larger xialongao, that gets eaten differently.

    I suspect that the daughter when faced by her own daughter’s desire in the year 2050 to reinvent the xialongbao for space travel, might become reluctant to seeing her own adaptation tinkered with.

    Love your photographs and look forward to more delectables from you. Ben

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and your take on authentic cuisine, Ben. I think the perfect scenario would be a willingness to cook using local ingredients, acknowledging past traditions, and making space for innovations. I’m thankful that we have regional French cuisine as well as the delights of French-Chinese fusion. My hope is that the future does not have tasteless bars and sludge (that makes us think we are ingesting “chicken”) in store for us. Wishing you and Peta the very best.

  10. This does sound like an ingenious idea.
    I agree that there is no actual authenticity in food of any ethnic variety, because we would have to be able to time-travel back to the first time any recipe was ever conceived to declare anything truly authentic.

    • Now you’ve got me daydreaming about a time-traveling food show….It hadn’t really occurred to me until Zhu pointed it out, that cuisines I believed unaltered from time immemorial were rather recent developments. He had me diving into the intriguing past of pizza. Thanks for stopping by to chat. Wishing you a lovely spring in your neck of the mountains.

  11. wonderful story about food and people, and mother daughter relationships – often more fraught than this. I also loved the way you conveyed that finding good food is a quest which only the initiated understand and only the discriminating know where it is, and how to find it !

    • Your compliment had me grinning since a friend of mine in culinary school insists that I do not give enough thought and appreciation to the food I shovel in. I only scratched the surface, I’m sure, of that particular mother-daughter dynamic. Relationships are as complex as the history of food, as you can fully appreciate. Hope this finds you in good health and spirits.

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