A must-try for any lover of Chinese food, these ingenious dumplings are perfectly-steamed packages filled with delicious soup. How do they do it? Read on to find out.
What are soup dumplings?
There are several soup-filled dumpling dishes in Chinese cuisine, but in English-speaking countries, the term ‘soup dumplings’ refers specifically to xiaolongbao, a popular dim sum dish of steamed dumplings filled with rich, savoury broth and a meat or seafood filling.
Xiaolongbao are not dumplings as we would understand them in the west, but steamed dough parcels that are neatly crimped at the top and cooked in a bamboo steaming basket called a xiaolong. Traditionally-made xiaolongbao are filled with pork, and sometimes also crabmeat, and if you’re a real perfectionist, they should have exactly 18 crimps at the top.
History and origins of the dish
There are two different stories that tell of the origins of xiaolongbao, but both agree that it came from the Jiangsu province, which also included the city of Shanghai until 1927.
The first story doesn’t tell how xiaolongbao was first created, but credits its popularisation to an Emperor from some time in the 1700s, who discovered xiaolongbao during a visit to Jiangsu and couldn’t get enough of them. The Emperor continued his journey along the Yangtze River, spreading the word of these delicious soup-filled dumplings wherever he went.
The second, perhaps more commonly-accepted story, is that xiaolongbao were created by Shanghai restaurant owner Huang Mingxian in 1870. Mingxian originally called his new dish ‘large meat buns’, so their soup filling was a surprise, only discovered by patrons when they took a bite. Fans of these new dumplings were soon calling them ‘xiao long bao’ or ‘small basket buns’, after the bamboo steaming baskets in which they were served.
How to fill the dumplings with soup
Whichever of these stories is true, it’s no wonder people were impressed. Filling a tiny parcel of dough with soup seems impossible, like some kind of culinary magic trick, and the solution is simple and ingenious in equal measure.
In fact, the soup filling is extremely high in gelatine, and is usually made by boiling pork bones and skin. This makes the soup solidify into a jelly, which is much easier to handle, but when the dumplings are steamed, the jelly melts into a deliciously savoury soup.
The traditional way to make a xiaolongbao soup is to boil pork skin and bones, but if you want to save time, you can add aspic or gelatine to some bouillon. You can also add some aromatics for extra flavour, with ginger, garlic, scallions and rice wine all working particularly well. This should then be refrigerated until it solidifies, and then cut into small squares.
While the soup jelly is chilling in the refrigerator, you can make the rest of the filling, which usually comprises ground pork with different aromatic flavours. Grind the pork at home, and mix with some scallions, ginger, rice wine, light soy sauce, and a little salt, pepper and sugar.
How to cook xiaolongbao
You can buy ready-made xiaolongbao wrappers from the store, or make your own using a simple flour and water dough. Assemble the dumpling by placing a spoonful of the meat filling in the centre of the wrapper, and adding a cube or two of the soup jelly. Closing the wrapper can take some skill, but practice makes perfect. The best method is to rest the dumpling in the palm of your non-dominant hand, and use the thumb and forefinger to pinch pleats around the edge.
The best way to cook your dumplings is using a traditional bamboo steamer, which you can buy from most Asian stores. Place some water in a wok, or the bottom of a steamer pan, and set your bamboo steamer up on top. Steam the dumplings in small batches to avoid overcrowding the steamer. Each batch should take around 10 minutes to cook.
How to eat them
Xiaolongbao are traditionally served in the steamer they were cooked in, often resting on a paper mat or dried leaves. As a popular dim sum dish, they would typically be served in small batches and accompanied by other small plates. To accompany your xiaolongbao, you should have a simple dipping sauce made from Zhenjiang black vinegar and thin shavings of ginger.
Although delicious, xiaolongbao can be tricky to eat. After all, they are basically very thin parcels full of scalding hot soup, and you don’t want to burn your chin. Firstly, you absolutely need to use Chinese implements - a knife and fork would puncture the delicate wrapper and spill all that tasty soup you spent so long putting in there. A Chinese soup spoon is a must, and ideally you should also use chopsticks, although you can use your fingers if they’re clean.
The first task is to gently remove the dumpling from the steamer onto your spoon. Sometimes the dumplings can stick to the basket, so you need to lift them carefully to avoid tearing. Grab the knot at the top with your chopsticks (or clean hands) and gently lift from the steamer onto your spoon. Bite off the top of the dumpling, let it cool for a moment or two, and then drink the soup at your leisure.
If you love dumplings, you can eat your way across the globe with our guide to traditional dumpling recipes from around the world. How many have you tried?