Let me preface this before people get all uppity with pitchforks and hoes. These are simply my observations and preferences for what I would certainly deem a perfect Xiao Long Bao (to me).
I won’t give you any names or places or mention locations that may result in turf battles of the China vs. The World variety. I will simply give you a subjective breakdown of what I would consider the a great xlb.
For some basic history and an argument on authenticity of cuisines, I direct you to this fantastic Serious Eats article on the xlb.
Let’s start with some of the basic “need to know” facts.
XLB short for “xiao long bao” is directly translated to the words “little dragon bun.” For reference, people normally refer to them as Shanghai soup dumplings – which is really a crappy and sometimes misleading name because certain people (some call “noobs”) expect a bowl of soup with dumplings. Plus, the name Little Dragon Bun is badass in its own right.
Contrary to what you think – this is not a technical bao (Chinese for enclosed bun). It is wrapped like a bao, but it certainly is closer to a dumpling. We can argue the technical aspects of baos and dumplings all day long, but its just a name. Every Chinese town/city has a regional bun or dumpling, and in some cases, they even have family/neighborhood/clan specific recipes that tend to intermingle and confuse the names even further. There is no traditional standard beyond the esoteric regional preferences of towns, mainly because there are about a thousand varieties and manipulations of provincial specialty dumplings. I would know, my family has multiple family heritage recipes that deviate wildly from the standard ones observed. Since the xlb is one of the most famous Chinese dumpling in the world, we will simply have to grade it on its most well known attributes and common merits.
Structure and Ingredients:
3 Basic Components – Skin, Soup and Meat
Skin production involved 1 basic technique and a few basic ingredients. The Chinese cook their dough when it comes to dumpling production, so they add hot water to a variation of AP, wheat starch (bleached), variant root/vegetable starch. Ratios, types of starch and flours make a big difference in how the dumpling turns out (color, texture, elasticity and tensile strength). Color and transparency are the giveaways for the primary flours/starches used. Elasticity, texture and tensile strength are a result of manipulating recipe ratios and workmanship for the dumpling. Obviously, different types of dumplings call for different varieties of chewiness, stickiness, thickness, mouthfeel, color and flavor – all dependent on what is traditionally acceptable. The dough gets kept moist until it is portioned into balls and then rolls out for hand folding and production of dumpling. In the case of the xlb, its filled, given many pinches and a final signature twist to close off the opening.
Soup production involves 1 basic technique: make stock. Creating a pork laden stock with variable vegetables (chicken, seafood combo also used sometimes) and then refrigerating it to create a gelatin for filling.
Meat production involves 1 basic technique which is typically ground pork mixed with a variety of difference flavorings dependent on family and area, but I will say that the most common flavors in the pork filling include garlic, ginger, scallion, rice wine, sesame oil, and soy.
There are many facets to critiquing something seemingly so simple. Many people have different ways and means of going about what they consider good or bad (some of them wildly off-base), but I will categorize the method of my madness when it comes to critiquing a dumpling. In this case, we’re talking about a xlb, but you can apply the standard model for most dumplings.
a). Skin – It’s the first thing you encounter. The skin of the dumpling is the most telltale part of the entire eating experience. If the skin is not good, then there is simply no need to continue with the evaluation process. You could argue that the success or failure of an entire Chinese restaurant hangs by the balance of the skin of a dumpling. This is not an exaggeration. If you do not possess the knowledge to understand, critique and technically evaluate the skin of a soup dumpling (or the king of dumplings: the hai-gow aka “shrimp dumpling”), then you do not qualify to have your opinion heard. Being Chinese doesn’t qualify you – even though it enables exposure, a cultural reference point and experience – I’ve had Chinese people give me piss poor recommendations to some of the worst dumplings I’ve had ever. Every dumpling has a different point of reference when it comes to evaluation. In this case, the xlb is often a matted grayish white that has a much less gummy or starchy mouthfeel than many of the transparent dumplings seen in dim sum. There isn’t much bite to the dumpling unlike the skin of the much thicker Northern style, but it should certainly hold up better than that of the wonton or gyoza. A great xlb dumpling should have skin that is both strong, thin and certainly elastic/flexible to a certain extent. The thinnest skin does not equate to the best dumpling, contrary to what some people seem to think or judge them by. Super thin skin likely leads to leaks and breaks, but thicker skin inevitably compromises the texture and taste of the dumpling. If the skin isn’t somewhat flexible, it may burst upon lifting – a disappointing eating experience. Most recipes point to AP or some high gluten flour as the way to go, but I suspect that the best ones don’t go with an all flour recipe and use some variant flour (rice, tapioca?) as a mix in to lend help either with mouthfeel, but this would require endless trial runs of dumpling making. I do know that some xlbs are whiter and may have a more textured appearance that is traditional to bleached flour; whereas some are a little more yellow gray and have a shinier smoother sheen across the surface of the dumpling skin. The ones with a shinier smoother sheen are less gummy and stronger – as a result, can be rolled thinner. They also stick less to the chopstick and cabbage. Thickness/thinness is all dependent on technique, craftsmanship and what the dough ratio will allow.
Soup and Meat Filling – Not sure a traditional French stock would taste right here, so a slightly more neutral pork/beef/chicken stock of some sort would make more sense. The Chinese version of mirepoix ranges wildly left or right to different ingredients depending on what soup they make. The meat in the filling should not have a coarse texture, but it shouldn’t be all creamy either. It should never be bouncy like sausage. The round ball of pork should melt in your mouth (or be fatty enough too), but should maintain some sort of shape after being steamed. The aromatics inside should taste of sesame, green onion, garlic and a hint of ginger. Typically the most common issues I have with xlbs are 1). the missing flavor of ginger and 2). the overwhelming taste of garlic and sesame oil. The flavor of pork should be prominent and be supported well – when not properly supported, it could be too sharp (porky). I also hate it when the meat in the dumpling melts in with the soup and just becomes a pool of indiscriminant pork liquid. Xlbs also seem to have their slight differences regionally it seems, some dumplings taste a little heartier and more savory with mixed flavors – more “country”. Some of them have a cleaner broth and distinctive refined flavors –more “city”. (this concept of “city” vs. “country” is very easily discernible, but that’s a whole other conversation) I prefer a slightly more “country” rustic dumpling if we can call it that.
Size – I typically see the dumplings in smaller form, 1.5 – 2 in diameter, but some make them very large, up to 2.5-3 in diameter. I prefer something closer to 2 in because the experience of larger dumplings (despite thinner skin) seems to lead to more leaking and breaking. Also, they don’t make soup spoons capable of accommodating such large sizes. I prefer to the option of putting the entire dumpling in my mouth and let the pork and soup explosion happen.
I’d honestly say my critique isn’t some mind blowing discovery process, but one that is rooted with my own insights and preferences. Most of what you’ve probably read is meant to relay the specifics behind the general day-to-day opinions I hand out so thoughtlessly. This should probably lead you to a couple of conclusions (or both), 1). I am particular and know what I like or 2). I’m ridiculously neurotic about dumplings.