In my short twenty-seven years on this earth, I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a good number of places. Eighteen years in New Orleans, three years in rural South Carolina, a few months in Charleston, a few months in Paris, one year in Chicago, five years in San Francisco and, now, nearly a year in Portland. The memory of all of those boxes–set up, packed, taped, lifted, moved, lifted again, untaped and then unpacked–it’s exhausting just to think about! But in terms of my obsession with food, all of these moves have been a huge blessing as each place has contributed to my philosophy on food and presented new opportunities for me to challenge myself in the kitchen…once the 38 boxes of kitchen supplies and cookbooks have been located and successfully unpacked, that is.
San Francisco, for instance, whose population is more than one third Asian, has a heavy influence of Eastern flavors and cuisine, the strongest arguably being Chinese. Tourists flock to San Francisco’s quaint Chinatown scene to peruse the shops and gawk at their unique goods, such as snake venom and quirky back scratching tools, and to taste, buried in the business of Chinatown, an authentic Chinese cuisine like they’ve never had before. But good Chinese cuisine in San Francisco isn’t limited to Chinatown alone. Thirty miles south of San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley, lies my personal favorite, Chef Chu’s–a pseudo fine-dining restaurant with a killer menu. I’d venture to Chef Chus, where the owners knew me by name, regularly while in classes at Stanford, but especially when I craved their melt-in-your-mouth Peking Duck wrapped in its soft, pillowy pancakes and oozing with a deep brown, sweet hoisin sauce.
But the restaurant that everyone has to go to when they’re visiting San Francisco is without a doubt Yank Sing. Tucked into a strange, oddly corporate space in the middle of the buzzing Financial District, this place is truly a dining destination, featuring some of the best dim sum America has to offer and attracting visitors from all over the world.
The first time I went with my dad’s family when they were in town visiting, we sat eagerly at our table, admiring all of the dishes being hauled on and off the carts that whirled around us. Dishes clanking, room packed with the mid-day chatter of hungry patrons, and waiters bouncing around from table to table, pushing carts with mysterious worldly bites. “Lobster rolls!” hollered one elderly woman behind a cart. Followed closely behind by another, “Szechuan chicken!”
The dish that everyone longs for here, however, is the Xiao Long Bao (xiaolongbao), otherwise known as Shanghai Soup Dumplings. I was completely unaware of the existence of these steamed balls of hot soupy fun the first time I went. Lucky for me, however, every time I move to a new city, my stepmom reads the tourist books in preparation for her first visit and gets me up to speed on my new hood’s hot spots, or in this case, the hot dishes. (Literally!) So when the next waiter turned toward our table with simple-looking, white cloud-like balls of dough and called out, “Xiao Long Bao…soup dumplings!” we knew to pounce. We ordered a round for the table, each of us carefully peeling the dumpling from the bamboo box that it sat in with our chopsticks before gingerly placing it in our soup spoons in preparation for the first taste.
Biting into the perfectly creased dumpling for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. And then, all of a sudden, I was hit, like a bolt of lighting, with a hot, soupy liquid. The broth was rich with a strong umami flavor. It dribbled down my chin as I tried, with all my might, to be graceful about eating my precious soup dumpling. I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as a “graceful” person, so I was proud when the dumpling and most of its liquid contents actually landed in my mouth and not on the floor. The dumpling also had a small meatball-like pork mixture in it, seeping with bold salty and acidic flavors from Chinese wine, ginger, and soy sauce.
Eaten together, the soup dumpling was like a warm comforting hug, enveloping me in a deep embrace from the inside out as its hot liquid made the journey from mouth to core, coating my insides. But it’s intense flavors do the opposite, offering a swift punch in the face (in a good way, if that’s even possible.) The perfect marriage between eastern flavors. Its ingredients sang together in rich harmony while my head began to plot to steal the next dumpling from the center of the table. Or maybe I’d just order an entire platter of dumplings, all to myself. Like the dim sum version of Kevin McCalister: “A lovely
cheese pizza steamer of soup dumplings…just for me.”
I recently came across an amazing Asian-style cooking blog called The Woks of Life whose authors are based half in the US and half in Beijing. They posted a recipe for Xiao Long Bao on their site, which, after trying, I can affirm is dangerously close to the dumplings I so coveted at Yank Sing.
While the idea of making homemade aspic, the gelatin-like ingredient that, when heated, becomes the soupy part of the dumpling, might sound daunting (it did for me, anyway), this part was actually quite simple. The assembling of the dumplings, however, with their 20-something intricate dough creases, is a work of art. One that, as you can see in the photographs here, I clearly have not yet mastered. I was thrilled when I successfully made ten uneven creases. Twenty uniform ones will be something to strive for in the future.
But don’t let that deter you. The flavors and fun presentation merit trying this recipe at least once. Let’s just hope you have more nimble fingers (and more patience) than do I. And if not, you know what they say: Practice makes perfect! I think I’ll be practicing this one a lot.
Xiao Long Bao, Shanghai Soup Dumplings
- ½ pound of pork skin, cut into 1-inch long strips (but if you buy extra, you can make crispy pork skins!)
- 1 pound of pork neck, bones and meat still on
- 8 cups of water, divided into 2 parts
- 2 thin slices of ginger, about 1-inch each
- 2 scallions, each cut into 3 pieces
- 1 tablespoon of shaoxing wine
Add 4 cups of water to a medium-sized pot along with the pork skin and pork neck bones. Bring to a rolling boil and then immediately remove from heat and pour contents through a colander to drain of impurities. Rinse the pot with water and then add the pork skin and neck bones back to the pot. Add the remaining 4 cups of water along with the ginger, scallions, and shaoxing wine and heat over high. Once the water is boiling again, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 2 hours.
After 2 hours, remove the pot from the heat, remove the lid and allow to cool. Once it has cooled, strain the liquid through a colander and preserve liquid in a bowl. Let liquid sit out until it reaches room temperature (about 1-2 hours). Then, cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. This will result in a jello-like aspic overnight.
Pork Filling Ingredients:
- 1 pound of ground pork
- 2 tablespoons of shaoxing wine
- ¾ teaspoons of salt
- 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
- ¾ teaspoon of sugar
- 3 teaspoons of light soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons of water
- ¼ teaspoon of ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon of freshly minced ginger
- 2 cups of your aspic, chopped roughly
Pork Filling Method:
While the aspic is simmering, mix together the pork filling. Begin by grinding the pork in your food processor for 30-60 seconds, or until it creates a kind of paste. Incorporate the remaining 8 ingredients (everything except the aspic) until the pork is well mixed. If you like, you can fry a small meat patty in a skillet to test the flavors and adjust to suit your tastes as necessary. Set the pork aside until you are ready to assemble the dumplings.
Once ready to assemble, gently fold the aspic into the pork filling. Keep in mind, though, that you want the pork mixture to be chilled once you start assembling the dumplings. (They’re much easier to assemble when it’s cold!)
- 2 cups of all purpose flour
- 3/4 cups of warm water
Pour the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the warm water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes, or until it is smooth and light. Cover with a damp paper towel and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes.
Once all of your ingredients are prepped, dust a clean dough board (or marble slab) with flour and roll the dough out until it is approximately ¼-inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter (or a sharp glass) that’s about 3 inches in diameter, cut out several circles from the dough, reshaping and rolling out the dough as you go along until you’ve used all of it. This should result in around 20-25 3-inch dough circles. While you’re working with the dough, make sure to keep what is not being used under a damp paper towel so that it doesn’t dry out.
Once you’re ready to put together the dumplings, take the filling out of the refrigerator. Place 1 tablespoon of filling into the dough circle, pleating and pinching it up to cover the dumpling completely, making sure not to tear the dough “skin”. Your goal is 15 pleats, but if the best you can get is 5-10, then c’est la vie! They’ll still taste delicious. (On my first try, I was getting about 8, if I was lucky.) Here is a fantastic video on how to assemble dumplings, which I highly recommend using as a resource on finger position and pinching technique. If you notice the pork filling getting too warm and difficult to handle, let chill in the freezer for 10-15 minutes before returning to the assembly.
Place the buns in a bamboo steamer basket that has been lined with cabbage leaves. (Cheesecloth also works for lining.) Bring a wok or skillet filled with about 3 inches of water to a boil. You should have enough water that the basket is sitting about ½ inch in it, but not so much that it touches your cabbage leaves. Once the water is boiling, cover the bamboo steamer with a lid and place into the boiling water. Steam over high heat for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and serve .
- Chinese black vinegar
- Freshly minced ginger, to taste
- Green onions (or chives), thinly sliced, to taste
In a small bowl, mix together the black vinegar with ginger and green onions to taste. Serve alongside the freshly steamed dumplings.
Eat these with chopsticks and/or a Chinese soup spoon by first dipping in the black vinegar mixture and then eating, carefully–they’re hot!
This recipe was adapted from The Woks of Life.