They’re delicate, filled to the brim with piping hot tasty broth, and loved the world over. But how does the soup get in there, and what makes a perfect soup dumpling?
By now, people from New York to London have become familiar with soup dumplings, bite-sized parcels of meat with pork broth nestled inside.
But before they took over the world, they were a humble street snack in a little town called Nanxiang in Shanghai, where soup dumplings—known as xiaolongbao 小笼包 in Chinese—were born.
At Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, Shanghai’s most venerated xiaolongbao establishment, head chef You Yumin and her team churn out over 2,000 soup dumplings a day. And she runs a tight ship, ensuring that each dumpling is made to perfection, with consistent size, shape, and temperature.
You has been under the toque for 24 years. She says the process of making these delicate bites is not for everyone. “In the beginning, my class had a lot of people,” she recalls. “But the process of making soup dumplings is quite tedious, so in the end, most people dropped out after one or two years.”
A soup dumpling has two components: the skin and filling. The filling is made with ground pork and aspic, a gelatin made by boiling pork skin and bones for four hours.
Pork skin is high in collagen, so when the resulting broth cools down, it becomes aspic. When the gelatin is steamed, it turns back to liquid again.
“The secret to our soup dumpling is our fresh filling,” You says. “We don’t have onions, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, or any other seasonings. When you eat it, you’re eating the original flavor of the pork.”
(Read more: Why does northern China eat so many buns?)
The skin is made with just flour and water. Some chefs hand-press the dough into circles, but You says the method produces inconsistent results “because everyone’s hand size is different.”
Instead, she prefers to use rolling pins, which lay out evenly-shaped 7-centimeter disks (yes, the standards are that precise). The chef controls her rolling to make sure the center is thick enough to hold, but the edges are thin enough to fold.
After she places the filling inside the skin—the ratio is 12 grams of filling to 9 grams of dough—she wraps the whole thing up with at least 16 pleats.
“Some really good chefs can do up to 20 or 30 folds,” You says. “Some chefs are calmer and work more slowly, so they can make more folds.”
Technique is important here. If the folds are too thin, the dumpling will fall apart. But if they’re too thick, part of the dough will be uncooked.
After they’re wrapped, the soup dumplings are steamed and then delivered to tables within half a minute.
“We have a saying. If it’s cold, you don’t have to pay,” You says. “Because the inside has gelatin, when it gets cold, it will solidify.”
For that reason, all the tables at Nanxiang are within a 30-second reach of the kitchen.
To eat a soup dumpling, simply nibble a hole on the skin, slowly slurp out the soup, and then dip the dumpling in vinegar.
“It’s important to pay attention to how people eat soup dumplings,” You says. “A lot of people don’t know how.”
For that reason, Nanxiang also lists instructions on each table for eating a soup dumpling. It turns out there is as much skill required in eating a soup dumpling as in making one.