Make Dumplings, Not War

You’ve heard me wax poetic about the Asian delights of the San Gabriel Valley many times on this blog, but there is nothing I remember as fondly as the xiao long bao.

The first time I tried XLBs, Chinese soup dumplings, was studying abroad in Shanghai. Our hosts took us, a rowdy group of American college students, on a field trip to a fancy tourist restaurant where we ate tray after steaming tray of dumplings.

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Throwback to summer 2010. Oh snap.

Despite that early exposure, I didn’t appreciate the awesomeness the soup dumplings until I went to Luscious Dumplings in Monrovia a couple of years ago. Maybe I was really hungry that day. Maybe I was low on electrolytes and craving salty meat. Maybe it helped that I was finally proficient with chopsticks, picking up the delicate purse of broth without puncturing the wrapper. Or maybe it’s because Luscious honestly makes the best soup dumplings in the US.

Anyway, long story short, it was love at first bite-and-slurp.

Unfortunately, for the last year, XLBs and I have been in a difficult long-distance relationship. There are some dumpling places in Chinatown and there are trendier restaurants like Stephanie Izard’s Duck Duck Goat that serve XLBs, but somehow that feels like betrayal.

So this week, I took a different tack: I tried making XLBs from scratch using this recipe from Serious Eats, and following this slideshow tutorial from Bon Appetit. The full recipe takes about two days from soup to nuts.

  1. Make broth: 2-4 hours to cook, 8-12 hours to cool and gel
  2. Make wrappers: 2-3 hours to mix, knead, rest dough and  roll 40 wrappers
  3. Make filling: 10 minutes
  4. Assemble dumplings and steam: 10-15 minutes per batch

To be perfectly honest, they didn’t come out as well as I would have hoped, but now I have a much deeper appreciation for the soup dumpling as a delicate vehicle for a gut-punch of umami that takes skill, practice, and subtlety to prepare.

A few notes from the process:

  • Use barely enough water to cover the bones in your pot when making the broth. Excess water yields a weak broth and runny gel, which defeats the point of making XLBs.
  • Don’t skim all the fat from the gelled broth. This was my big mistake. My soup dumplings had the umami of the broth, but not the stick-to-your-tongue unctuousness that I really want in an XLB. Keep the fat.
  • I recommend measuring out 10-12g of dough into a 3.5 inch wrapper. And I really mean measure, with a scale and ruler for uniformity. The Serious Eats recipe comes out closer to 14g and a 4 inch wrapper, which seemed too dough-y for my taste.

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  • Alternatively, to save time and improve uniformity, you can use a pasta machine to roll out thin sheets and cut out circles with a 3-inch diameter cookie cutter or small bowl. Similar to this tutorial for tortellini.
  • Use enough filling such that the pleats don’t completely cover the meat and broth, then pinch the top shut. Unlike fried or boiled dumplings, you don’t need to worry as much about making a completely waterproof sack with excess dough on the edges because soup dumplings sit, open side up, on the steamer. Excess dough at the top just detracts from the flavor of the broth. I probably could have clipped off the excess dough after the dumpling was sealed.

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  • Do not over-steam. This reduces the structural integrity of the wrapper, making it more likely you will lose your broth in transit to your face. Five minutes is perfectly adequate.
  • Play around with each batch. This was my first time making dumplings completely from scratch (I usually use store-bought wrappers), so it was fun to adjust the recipe between batches, instead of making everything at once. Variables to test: wrapper thickness and diameter, steaming time (+/- 45 seconds), volume of filling, and ratio of broth to meat.
  • More gel = more soup = actual soup dumpling.
  • Enjoy! Dumplings are like pizza: amazing when done well, still pretty good when done not-so-well.

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