If you were to individually segment out the Chinese word of Xiao Long Bao (小笼包), it would literally mean small for “xiao”, basket for “long” and bun for “bao”. And how right the name can be as these little dumplings are traditionally steamed in bamboo baskets.
Xiao Long Bao originated in Shanghai over a hundred years ago and has now become an iconic symbol of Shanghainese cuisine. They were originally created by the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant in China and they continue selling these dumplings to this day. These dumplings are filled with a hot soup and meat and/or vegetarian fillings, as well as other possibilities. The fillings are wrapped in something like a jiaozi (wanton-like) wrapper that turns almost translucent after being steamed. Xiao Long Bao can be recognized by their unique design, as the filled wrapper is gathered up into fine folds (something like pleats) at the top, prior to steaming. (Although it's my first attempt I think I got the hang of the pleating part.)
Xiao Long Bao can be eaten at any meal in Chinese culture, and are often served in restaurants that have dim sum service. To eat these dumplings you would need to peel them off the lettuce or cabbage leaf onto which they sit prior to steaming, taking care not to break the dumpling skin. The straight forward way of eating this is to just dip the dumpling directly into a side dish of black vinegar and thinly shredded fresh young ginger. Take a small nibble of the skin, allowing some of the broth to drain. Make sure that your dumpling is sitting on a spoon before you take a nibble as some of the soup inside it may squirt out. It ever happened to me once and I got some of the soup on my business suit, not very nice I can tell you. Then eat the rest of the dumpling from the spoon. Doing so will allow you to savor the taste without scalding your tongue. In Singapore there are some restaurants (example Din Tai Fung) that just specializes in dumplings and you can have a full menu displaying the different types of Chinese dumplings available. There are even steamed dumplings the size of a regular tea cup and the amazing thing is the restaurant would give you a drinking straw with the dish … and I do mean a straw! The whole idea is for you to stick the straw into the dumpling and sip the soup out slowly.
If you've never tried Xiao Long Bao, you’ll probably wondering why is there a soup. Well, the soup keeps the whole dumpling moist and it is one of the important elements to this dish (besides the juicy filling and the skin wrapper.) Just to let you in on a secret - I tried making xiao long bao a few weeks ago, using a short cut method and omitting the soup. The dumplings turned out dry and was not tasty at all! I learnt from that lesson and decided to attempt this again using the “traditional” way.
How is the soup made? It’s made from slowly simmering chicken bones and fatty pork in a pot until it reduces to less than half it’s original content. Then a small amount of gelatin is added to the soup and cooled to become a block of “soup jelly”. The “jelly” is then cut into small cubes, added to the meat filling of the dumpling and then wrapped in the skin. Once the dumplings are steamed, the heat will melt the gelatin turning it into a soup, thus creating a soup base inside the wrapped dumpling. These dumplings can be eaten on it’s own or part of a main course. Alternatively you could serve this as a starter for an Asian-fusion meal. By the way I can easily eat 6 or more of these in one sitting!
I halfed the below recipe and came up with enough dumplings to serve 3-4 persons. Also if you don't want the hazzle of making the gelantized soup, you can omit it and not add it with the filing. Instead make the dumplings as per below recipe without the "soup jelly" and then cook the dumplings in a plain chicken or vegetable soup". What you have would be chinese dumpling in a soup broth. (Also instead of using pork, you can use minced chicken instead. It's all up to you how to play around with the ingredients.)
Xiao Long Bao – Shanghai Steamed Dumplings
Ingredients for the Aspic/Gelantized Stock:
1 pound chicken wings
2 chicken backbones
1 pork trotter (foot) or a large piece of pork skin (I used fatty pork belly with skin)
3 1/4 inch thick slices of ginger
4 green onions
4 cloves of garlic
1 star anise
8 cups of water
Salt to taste
Ingredients for the Wrappers:
3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cups hot water
2/3 cups cold water
Pinch of salt
For the Filling:
1 pound ground pork (I added some chopped cilantro. You can vary this by adding in thinly sliced shitake mushroom, roughly minced prawn and small cubes of waterchest nut, if preferred)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sugar
2 cups gelatin stock, chopped into small pieces
Method to Make the Gelantized Soup:
1) When working with pork feet make sure to wash it well, then boil it twice in a change of water to get the smell, bacteria, and scum out. If you're using raw chicken wings and backbones, it's best to boil those once too to get any scum out. Add the pork feet to a pot (large saucepan, stock pot, Dutch oven whatever works) and cover them with water and bring it to a boil. Boil for a minute, drain, and rinse off any scum on the feet in cold water. Wash out the pot as well or use a new pot because there will be scum on the side. Return the pork feet, and the raw chicken wings and backbones to the pot and fill with cold water and bring back to a boil again and boil for a minute. Drain and rinse off any scum and wash the pot again
2) Add 2 teaspoons of oil to your pot over medium heat. Smash the ginger slices and green onion with the side of a knife and add to the oil and until they are fragrant, then add boiled and rinsed off chicken wings and pork feet, 1 star anise, and 8 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil then simmer gently uncovered, skim any scum on the surface, for 6+ hours. (I cheated here and simmered the soup close to 3 hours. I then added about 1/2 teaspoon of gelatin into the stock and poured it into a container to set. Once cooled I placed the container into the fridge to solidify)
3) Never let the soup boil again because it will cloud. The stock is ready when it can solidify at room temperature. Test the stocks gelling ability by spooning some of it into a small bowl and allow it to cool down to room temperature. If it solidifies then the stock is ready. Strain soup and season it with some salt. Set aside 2 cups for the dumpling filling. Save any excess for adding to sauces or soups. Let the soup cool to room temp then transfer it to the fridge. The soup can keep for up to 3 days in the fridge. You can scrape off any fat that solidifies on top or mix it into the filling.
Method to Make the dough (for the wrappers):
1) In a large bowl, add 2 1/2 cups of flour. First add the 1/3 cup of very hot water and stir that into the flour.
2) Then add the 2/3 cup of cold water and stir it into the dough. Bring the dough together and knead while incorporating additional flour if you need to, until the dough is not sticky. Don’t overknead or it will be too tough and gluteny to work with. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for an hour while you prepare the filling.
Method to Make the Filling:
Mix the ground pork with all of the seasoning ingredients and set aside. Keep the filling in the fridge until the dough has finished resting.
How to Wrap the Dumplings:
1) Divide the dough into 3 portions. Work with one portion and keep the other two covered. Roll the dough into a long snake. Then cut a small cylindrical piece off of the snake. Flatten with your palm and roll the dough out into a 2 1/2 inch diameter wrapper. I used a small wooden rolling pin that is about 6 inches long and about an inch in diameter.
2) Here's a quick tutorial on How to Make Xiao Long Bao. Unfortunately it is all in Chinese but you can refer to the pictures as guide. Another good reference would be Jaden of Steamy Kitchen. You want the wrappers to be a bit thicker than wonton wrappers. If the wrappers are too thin, the soup will dissolve it and leak out.
3) Place about a teaspoons of filling in the center of the wrapper. Slightly flatten it and then place a small cube of the gelatin stock in the centre. Wrap the edges of the filling around the gelatin cube.
4) Then hold the outer edge of the wrapper with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand. Using the other thumb and index finger, hold the edge of the wrapper and bring it to your dominant hand to pleat. Pleat around the circumference of the entire wrapper, turning the dumpling as you go, and seal the tip to close. (It took me ages to make the wrappers. I think it’s a skill in itself and certainly lots of practice involved.)
Steam and serve:
1) Bring some water to a boil in a wok or large pot with a steamer insert. Line a bamboo or metal steaming basket with cabbage leaves or damp cheesecloth. Place the dumplings in the basket and steam on high for 5 – 7 minutes.
2) Serve hot with ginger slivers and black vinegar.