As with many of my culinary discoveries, it was New York which introduced me to xiǎolóng bāo (小笼包). And my Chinese friends who brought me to the restaurants where they were freshly made. I’m sure for anyone who remembers their first xiao long bao experience and for those of you who have yet to discover the joy of XLB, the unsuspecting, delicious, soul-warming soup inside this bite-sized pleated dumpling is the most memorable. Like a Kinder surprise egg the highlight is hidden and wrapped inside, and although you may already know the surprise, you are nonetheless excited about it and thrilled by the flavour-intense soup that comes gushing out once you bite a little hole into the slightly stretchy yet thin and delicate dumpling skin.
Yes, that’s the way to approach the little devil: pop it on your spoon (or rather carefully lift it), take a tiny bite and slurp up the soup (or parts of it) and then, after a dip into Zhenjiang vinegar* (often with slivers of ginger), in goes the whole thing, into your mouth. Some prefer to wait for a while to pop the whole thing in at once, entire soup and everything, but for me that ceremony of placing it on the spoon, nibbling at it and receiving joy #1 – the soup – then, with a dip into vinegar, joy #2 – the dumpling with (most commonly) pork filling – is the major thrill of a xiao long bao experience.
Xiao long bao (originally and still commonly a snacking food in China), as the story goes, hails from Nanxiang, a district in Shanghai, and was invented in the 1870s by a man named Huang Mingxian in an effort to attract more customers to his restaurant. While in this instance the use of the term “invented” obscures the fact that Mr. Huang must have come across similar soup dumplings which influenced his xiao long bao creation, it does give us the safety and security of a point of origin and on the side a nice story to tell.
The initial name he gave his new dumpling concoctions, Nanxiang da rou mantou (Nanxiang large meat-filled steamed bread), suggests he had further developed an existing concept rather than entirely invented a new one: adding aspic to the pork mince filling of a dumpling, bun or steamed bread, which upon steaming would become liquid and fill the dough-based food with soup.
Pork aspic, which essentially is thick pork stock congealed into solid form by gelatin, would at that point have already existed in Chinese cuisine for quite some time, even before the invention of refrigeration (if you boil down gelatinous tendons for extended periods you will eventually find yourself with a thick stock that coagulates into an aspic without the need for colder temperatures). Mr. Huang thus continued a technique already discovered, but perhaps made the dumplings smaller, the skin more translucent, and the flavour more intense.
Unfortunately we cannot go back in time to try them and know for sure, but whichever amendments he did make, these were naturally driven by discerning customers who contributed to xiao long bao’s formation due to continuous demand of the fine-tuned product and a change in its name: first they began to call it xiao long mantou (small basket steamed bread), then finally xiao long bao (little basket parcels – aka little bamboo steamer buns) – thus identifying its delicate nature.
Putting forth that Mr. Huang “invented” xiao long bao in Nanxiang in the 1870s also suggests that it has continued to be offered in its unchanged form till this day, when in reality the original restaurant no longer exists, and the xiao long bao served at the famous Nanxiang Bun Shop (Nánxiáng mántóu diàn 南翔馒头店) at Yu Garden in Shanghai pale in comparison to those served at some Din Tai Fung branches and other restaurants further afield, as far away even as Los Angeles (for an insightful article on one woman’s experience with xiao long bao, read this article here).
If you’ve never heard of Din Tai Fung, it’s the Taiwanese restaurant chain specializing in xiao long bao, which brought the steamed dumpling to fame internationally. Yet another example of how food travels with people (founder Yang Bingyi was from Shanxi in Mainland China, but exiled to Taiwan in 1948 as a result of the Civil War) and continues in its development, never standing still.
In New York, freshly made xiao long bao with delicate skin, savoury soup and juicy pork filling are not very hard to come by. If you’re looking for good ones in Manhattan, Serious Eats will be able to help you out there. In Korea, Din Tai Fung is well enough represented with four separate locations. I visited the one in Myeongdong, which with ten pieces at £7 is considered expensive, but the quality of the soup-filled parcels, at least at the time, were worth the expense.
Join me on my quest for the best xiao long bao in London. Rather than looking for authentic xiao long bao, whatever this may mean, I will focus on pure taste and texture. Likely this will include a delicate dumpling wrapper, a flavour-explosive soup and a juicy pork filling. As long as it’s fresh and delicious, I’ll be sure to let you know about it. Updates will follow on social media @bibimbites #xiaolongbaolondon and my personal favourite will be announced here. Be sure to follow the hunt! 再见.
*a rice-based black vinegar widely used in Chinese cuisine
Small = 小 (xiǎo)
Basket = 笼 (lóng)
Package/parcel = 包 (bāo)
Soup = 汤 (tāng)
Vinegar = 醋 (cù)
Zhenjiang vinegar = 镇江香醋 (Zhènjiāng xiāng cù)
Ginger = 生姜 / 姜 (shēngjiāng / jiāng)
Shanghai = 上海 (Shànghǎi)
Aspic = 肉冻(ròu dòng)
Steamed bread =馒头 (mántou)
Harding, J. (ed.) 2001. The Food of China. London: Murdoch Books.
Kenji López-Alt, J. 2011. Article at Serious Eats.
The Cleaver Quarterly article.
Unterman, P. 2012. Article in Afar magazine.