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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.

“But…”

“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?”

“Mmm—mmm.”

“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.”
“What?”

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?”

“No.”

“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.


BT’s VEGETARIAN SOUP DUMPLING RECIPE

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


WHAT YOU NEED

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


WHAT TO DO

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.

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113 replies »

  1. A feast of a post with a sparky intellectual conversation as well! It was as if I was wondering the streets with you and your friend … that in itself brilliantly captured and then enraptured by the tastes of the dumplings. I felt sad for the daughter and that her mother had never tried hers. I agree, there is no standard and as with everything, dishes evolve … wonderfully so!

    • Thank you, Annika! Especially comforting this week to hear you say so. I, too, am always grateful that we have so much variety in our culinary world. More tasty “research” for me!

  2. You know you’re in for something good when you’re promised, “You’ll weep about it for weeks after.” It sounds heavenly.

    Truly an interesting story about the mother and daughter, along with the questions you raised about what is Authentic.

    Wonderfully written, as always. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Little pillows of love…we all love these in our nest, even my pickiest eater. Happy feasting, I think I would weep if I tried the mother and or daughter’s xiaolongbao.

  4. I loved this post! Your writing is truly exceptional and you paint beautiful pictures of your experiences through words. Travel has showed me how diverse cultural influences shape history, cuisine, and people. Most ancient cultures like to preserve a sense of purity, in a bid to keep the past alive. I agree with your friend. No one can truly recreate the same dish every single time. It’s the inbuilt uncertainty we see in everything around us. Even nature doesn’t always get it right (I suppose intentional in most cases). And accidents give birth to new species and variety. It’s something we humans can learn, especially in the times we live in. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this! Definitely got me thinking.

    • I’m deeply touched by your remark. 💓After writing so much about my failures and misunderstandings while traveling, it’s inspiring for me that these stories can provide both introspection and enchantment for others.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I love the stories I discover through exploring local food on my travels and I appreciate that you find this to be true as well.

  5. Fantastic post! I’ve never tried these and love learning about regional foods and the stories/history behind them. I am glad that you waited to get something so delectable because then you were able to share it with us!

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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: https://tinyurl.com/ydhuwpnn.
      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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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: https://tinyurl.com/ydhuwpnn.
      As for freshly grown vegetables, another blogger (https://norcalzen.com) 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: https://tinyurl.com/ycvz6kwc.

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