Food

Is the xiaolongbao a bao or a dumpling?

Jun 22, 2018

Right before our exhaustive guide to Chinese baos dropped, we posed a pressing question to all of you:

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It’s a question we had been pondering ourselves while we were writing up the guide. In English, xiaolongbao (小笼包) is often translated to "soup dumpling," but in Chinese, xialongbao literally means "little caged bao." 

So is it a dumpling or a bao?

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Photo: Instagram

The majority of voters on both Twitter and Instagram chose dumpling, but the comments were divided. Some of you guys made this point:

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Good point. So, how should we define a bao in the first place?

The Chinese character bao 【包】 literally means “to wrap up.” But dumplings are also wrapped things. Are all baos really fluffier and drier than dumplings? Is the presence of a leavening agent the distinguishing factor?

When we plotted out all of our baos in our bao graph, we found that the majority of baos are indeed on the thicker end of the spectrum.
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Photo: Chart: Sierra Chiao/Goldthread

There were five exceptions to that rule: lamb and pumpkin bao, go believe bao, xiaolongbao, giant soup bao, and Sichuan xiaolong.

So the presence of a leavening agent is not an all-encompassing criterion. What about the cooking methodology of a bao?

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Still, not all baos are steamed. Shenjianbaos, for example, are pan-fried and pineapple baos are baked.

So maybe we need to zoom out.

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According to Merriam-Webster, a dumpling is “a small mass of dough cooked by boiling or steaming.” This, therefore, precludes all the non-boiled and steamed baos from being a dumpling. Technically, pineapple baos and shenjianbaos are not dumplings then—but they are baos. And according to this definition, xiaolongbaos are indeed dumplings.

But everything goes back to language and how food can get both lost and reinvented in translation. Bao, for Chinese speakers, includes all things wrapped and bundled, including dumplings, be it baked, fried, fermented or steamed. We don’t have the equivalent for such a glorious food item in English. So dumpling is as close as we can get to describing baos, but the word is not nearly inclusive enough.

As captured in this response, our linguistic and cultural references guide our knowledge of food:

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So by virtue of the name itself, a xiaolongbao is also a bao. And all dumplings are also baos. But not all baos are dumplings.

In conclusion: a xiaolongbao is both a bao and a dumpling.

Additional reporting by Ashley Kung.