Project Food Blog Challenge 2: The Great Xiaolongbao Experiment

A giant thank-you to everyone who voted me into Round 2 of Project Food Blog!
For this second challenge I have been asked to prepare a dish from another cuisine.

'Pick an ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone or you are not as familiar with. Try to keep the dish as authentic as the real deal.'

So because I'm living in Shanghai, for this challenge I have created one of the most classic and beloved Shanghainese dishes known, as well of one of the most difficult - for anyone who is not a dumpling chef. Which I'm not. The dish is xiǎolóngbāo. The name xiǎolóngbāo means small steamer bun. Say show(as in 'ow!')-long-bow.

Xiǎolóngbāo are small, delicate, thin-skinned steamed dumplings filled with pork and an aromatic and savoury soup. There is some contention about their exact geographic origin, but now they are associated inextricably with Shanghai. Someone went so far as to say they were 'the only contribution Shanghai had made to global cuisine'. Well!

The first time you try xiǎolóngbāo the soup bursts surprisingly onto your tongue with your  first bite, sending hot liquid all over your dress. Despite this, you are filled with wonderment that scalding soup can be contained inside a soft dumpling skin. How do they do it? How do they get the soup inside?? The secret to this culinary marvel is that the soup is made from pork jelly, mixed with the meat filling, solid at room temperature but melting into a delicious liquid when cooked. 

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm cheating

You will all gasp: She lives in CHINA and she's making a CHINESE dish??!  How hard can that be??

But I'm an Australian. My national food is a fusion of Mediterranean, British, and South-East Asian cuisine. When it comes to Chinese food, it's about as far away fromy own ethnic cuisine as it possible to be. In fact, I had never cooked it before, unless you count working your way through The Australian Women's Weekly Easy Chinese Cookbook, age 14. I'm sure if you served those dishes to a Chinese person they wouldn't recognise them. I thought we were pretty cosmopolitan.  

And although everyone in Shanghai loves xiǎolóngbāo, I have never met a single person who makes them at home, because they are far too time-consuming, and they need to be cooked and eaten within five minutes of being made. I thought, therefore, that they sounded like the perfect dish for this challenge.

So just how did my xiǎolóngbāo experiment pan out? Better than the Australian Women's Weekly Lemon Chicken, circa 1983, let me tell you. But still in need of a lot of practice. At least the ugly ones still taste good.

The real fun of xiǎolóngbāo is, of course, in the eating. Here's the technique:

Lift one carefully out of the steamer by its topknot.

Drizzle over some dark, complex-flavoured brown rice vinegar, or dunk the whole thing in a dish of vinegar. Or, if you prefer, eat it plain.

Nibble a small hole in the top, and allow the steam to escape.
Carefully, ever so carefully, suck out the boiling hot soup. Slurp noisily, and with enjoyment. Now pop the whole hot steaming bundle into your mouth.

Have another, and another. You've got a whole basket to get through!

Should you have a day or two up your sleeve, here's the recipe. The pork jelly needs to be made the day before.

Shanghai Xiǎolóngbāo
Makes 24 


For the filling:

200g pork mince
3tsp water
3tsp shaoxing rice wine
2tsp ginger, finely diced
1tsp scallion, finely diced
1 tsp salt
2tsp sugar
2tsp light soy sauce
shake of white pepper
2tsp sesame oil
200g pork skin jelly, finely diced (my recipe separately here)

Combine all the ingredients except the jelly. Stir the mixture 50 times in one direction. Not a joke! If you don't the meat will be lumpy. Now add the jelly, and mix. Refrigerate until ready.

For the dumpling skins:

160g wheat flour
90ml cold water

1. Combine the flour and water into a dough. Knead for 10 minutes until elastic.

2. Divide dough into two equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 12 inch long cylinder. Separate each cylinder into 12 equal pieces.

3. Roll each individual piece into a ball, then flatten into a disc. Roll out to 6cm size.

To construct:

1. Hold a wrapper flat on the palm of your left hand.

2. Place a heaped teaspoon of the dumpling mixture into the centre of the wrapper.

3. Cup your hand slightly, bringing the edges of the wrapper up around the filling.

4. Using both thumbs, and both index fingers, stretch and pleat the edges of the xiǎolóngbāo wrapper working anticlockwise as shown. Both thumbs remain inside the dumpling at all times, with both index fingers on the outside.

5. Continue working all the way round the edge of the wrapper, gently turning the bun in the palm of your left hand as you go.

6. It should resemble a rosette like this.

7. Press the pleated edges lightly together to seal.

8. So that it looks like this.

To cook:

1. Line a steamer basket with a store-bought liner, or a piece of tea-towel cut to shape. This will stop the xiǎolóngbāo frosticking to the steamer bottoand tearing when you lift them out. Place the xiǎolóngbāo into the steamer without touching one another.

2. Bring a pot of water to the boil, reduce to a simmer. Place the lidded steamer basket on top. Steam for 10 minutes.

3. Serve xiǎolóngbāo in the steamer basket, with brown rice vinegar on the side for dipping. Enjoy!

(Adapted with thanks from a recipe by The Chinese Cooking Workshop, Weihai Lu, Shanghai)

Labels: , , ,