[FOOD PORN] Xiaolongbao: Soup in a pocket

Robert Uy
Soup broth together with the pork filling just fills the nothingness in my mouth. It explodes.

TAIPEI, Taiwan – My first visit to the shrine happened in 2000. It was lunch and I was with a big group. No reservations are accepted. The place was nondescript.

A whole bunch of people were standing outside with queue numbers, the servers were polite but just too busy to check if you were comfortable. The shrine seemed so confident in what it offered its congregation that it wasn’t worried of people walking away because of the wait. And true enough, no one did.

We then entered this fluorescent-lit place. Formica-top tables, simple plastic chairs, servers and wait staff too busy completing tasks. Mysterious mumblings were exchanged, the laminated menu quickly disappeared, and hot tea was served. Most of us had never heard of this place back then. It was simply called Din Tai Fung.

A friend assured us that this was the place to go to in Taipei. The New York Times itself named it one of the Top 10 Gourmet Restaurants in the World on their 1993 list.

CRITICAL INGREDIENT. That's the ginger, no doubt.

The proper way

I was told to grab those small dipping dishes, fill them with a generous amount of the sliced ginger and pour the red vinegar over it. That was my dipping sauce. I was told that my tangchi or ceramic Chinese soup spoon was going to be very important over the next hour. That and a light touch from my chopsticks were going to be crucial.

I was told that the proper way to eat this was to use the chopsticks to nudge and slide a piece onto the soup spoon, bite a tiny portion off the skin, drink up the soup then lightly place some of the soaking ginger onto the spoon together with a drizzle of the dipping sauce and just pop it in your mouth. This, I was assured, was the proper way.

Within a few short minutes, a parade of bamboo baskets rifled in. Hot, steaming baskets that were bursting with mystery started piling up on our table. Huge baskets – not the usual 3 piece Siew Mai baskets.

Was this too much food? In my simple mind, dumplings were appetizers – not a main course. There were a few side dishes of lightly sautéed water spinach but that was it.

Lifting the lid, I saw these delicate bite-size dumplings all perfectly cocooned in a thin, tender, smooth and translucent skin made of partially raised flour. This was xiaolongbao. Each one had 18 folds. Count them, I was told. Each step towards making these wiggly wonders was calculated to extract maximum impact.

POCKET OF HEAVEN. Knitted dough of xiaolongbao.

Step by step

The special dough is made of medium gluten flour. Half of the flour is mixed with cold water which helps the dumpling’s skin puff up after steaming. The other half is mixed with hot chicken broth which stops the skin from expanding too much. A push and pull effect even before the dough is thinned out. The dough is hand-made – twisted, slapped and abused into the right elasticity.

Gnocchi-sized portions are then pinched off the mother lode, flattened out with a teeny roller. Resting in the hands of the chefs, they quickly fill each portion with some scallion and the ingredients for that specific dumpling. Then, a small piece of frozen soup (looking like a cube of gelatine) is added.  Then, the knitting begins.

The chef picks up a portion of the dough and folds it in, then the next over the previous fold and so on…until 18 folds are created in a swirl that tops the dumpling. Care is taken so that the dough does not break.

Completely forgetting the instructions, I slide the first dumpling onto my spoon, grab some of the ginger and dipping sauce and just pop the thing into my mouth.

TOOL OF THE TRADE. The soup spoon is an essential companion to savoring the xiaolongbao.

Dizzying delight

It explodes! There is no other way to describe it. It literally explodes. OMG! I pushed the dumpling in my mouth to the top of my palate and it explodes!

A swirl of scallion, soup broth together with the pork filling just fills the nothingness in my mouth. It explodes – and a delicate, lightly salted flavorful sea of goodness rushes in. The swirls were not confined to the dumplings anymore – they were dancing in my mouth. But before I could decipher their dance and join in, the celebration ends. I need another one.

It explodes. This time it was a dance with pork and crab meat. The crab meat seemed to enhance the pork in a way that heightened both the flavors. A Yin Yang sort of reaction was unfolding inside my mouth. But it was the soup that danced the dance of abandon. Fireworks were going off and I was dizzy with delight.

It explodes. And I am its slave. This was a habit forming right before me and I am too weak to resist. I forget about the vegetable side dish. I forget that this was a simple place. I forget the queue earlier. I forget everything that led up to today. All I have is what is before me and that is enough – no, it is too much but I need more.

It explodes. And I am its willing victim. – Rappler.com

Click on the links below for more.