Monday, March 15, 2010

Xiaolongbao : The Write-up

I know it's been a few weeks since Chinese New Year, but I wanted to take some time to do a write-up specifically on the xiaolongbao (steamed soup buns) and dumplings. By the way, continuing with our homestyle Chinese theme, we'll eventually get to a write-up on hand-pulled noodles, Niuroumian (beef noodle soup), and Zhajiangmian (fried meat sauce?), which we made for M's birthday this past weekend.

I've always viewed xiaolongbao as one of the pinnacles of Chinese cuisine, mostly because they have so much potential. Technique, flavor, and texture all vary so much--from the street vendors in Shanghai to Dintaifung's gourmet offerings. Since one of my hobbies is cooking things that I never thought possible to make on my own, xiaolongbao seemed like the perfect candidate. And what better time to make them than on Chinese New Year, where making dumplings is a New Year's Eve tradition?

So between Steamy Kitchen, Bon Appetit, and Kuidaore, we felt pretty confident that we could pull something together.

Step 1: Making the soup
Making the soup was pretty straightforward, but we started the day before so it would have time to chill. Going to the store was quite exciting, though, as I had most of the hog to choose from. Hmm...hoof soup? Skin soup? Nah, I think I'll pass. I veered from the recipes a bit by putting in some pork belly (and I left the fat on), which made for a few tasty meals after (add a bit of sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, and pepper, and you've got a kind of Chinese pulled pork). When the soup was done, the meat and broth looked so good that M kept drinking bowls of it. I had to kick her out of the kitchen so there would be enough broth for the xiaolongbao and the dumplings. A helpful hint here for anyone trying this at home: drag your pot of ready-to-simmer pork/chicken broth over to a friend's place and play Call of Duty for 2 hours while it simmers. Good times.

I had decided not to add agar or gelatin to make the broth set (mostly because we didn't have any), so after the 2 hours, I strained the soup and spent some extra time reducing it so that it would set in the fridge on its own. M and I went back and forth about whether we had reduced it long enough, whether to freeze it, etc. In the end, we nervously put it in the fridge, prepared to reduce it more the next day if needed, but when we checked on it in the morning, it was a gelatinous rectangle of gloriousness. I flipped it out of its Lock&Lock container onto a chopping board and tried to get a decent shot of it:
Jaden Hair over at Steamy Kitchen is a significantly better photographer, so you can head on over there for a gander, but be warned, she wrote up her xiaolongbao with a sex theme, so it can get a bit...well, steamy.

Step 2: The Filling

The filling's pretty similar to a standard dumpling filling, although it does have minced shrimp added. To be honest, we kind of regretted adding the shrimp since it was just frozen stuff from the local Chaoshifa supermarket. Getting decent seafood (for decent prices) is not easy here in Beijing. The fishiness of the shrimp mellowed out into the other flavors the day after, when we made a second batch with the leftover filling. Before we discovered that, we considered just leaving out the shrimp altogether, though we both agreed that xiaolongbao sort of needs a little of that seafoody funk to round out its flavor. So, M thinks that if we make this again, we could mince the shrimp a little finer and cure it with some ginger before mixing it in with the pork, then maybe let the filling hang out for awhile before using it.

Once the filling is ready, you can add the cubes of broth to the filling. Some people like to make individual cubes and surround them with filling, but we decided to mix the cubes in. Later, we decided it works even better if you break down the cubes a little more and get the gelatin nicely incorporated into the filling.

Part 3: The Dough
M has become the ultimate dough master. While I was busy messing with the pork jello and filling, she was mixing the dough. That night she made 4 batches of dumpling dough and 2 batches of xiaolongbao dough and taught our friends how to roll them out into perfect circles. The most difficult part about making xiaolongbao has got to be the pleating. Luckily, I spent most of my time in front of the stove, so other people had to suffer through trying to get uniform pleats on paper thin dough.

You'll have to excuse our uneven pleats and the few "Sad Sam" dumplings. (M's grandmother used to say badly folded dumplings looked lazy, like they were sleeping...) But hey, not bad for our first time, right?

Part 4: The Steaming (or Frying)

Steaming these bad boys was rough. We placed the steamer over our wok, but the steamer covered the water level, which made it difficult to tell if we needed to add water. The whole time we were coddling these guys; there are few worse tragedies in the food kingdom than a xiaolongbao whose soup has run out of him. Due to our inexperience, a few of these guys burst in the steamer. As we pulled off the lid, those of us gathered around the steamer let out a collective groan as soup dribbled out of the unfortunate dumplings and into the water below.

The first few batches came out okay, a little disappointing as far as soup goes. We had doubled the recipe but neglected to measure out the broth correctly (and added some of the cubes to the dumpling filling), so it's possible we didn't have enough broth for the filling. My preferred ratio has more soup and dough than filling, so I think some of the guys came out a little too dense for my tastes.

I had been joking all week that I was going to fry some, but when we got backed up with only one steamer and 15 hungry friends to feed, I decided to fry them up. One of our favorite foods from our trip to Shanghai last year was shengjianbao at a street vendor outside the Jade Garden and City God Temple. This was pretty much the same thing, though the dough for "real" shengjianbao is of the fluffier, thicker variety.

We cooked these the way we cook potstickers. Heat some oil, then place them in the skillet to brown for a couple minutes, then throw in some water and vinegar (carefully!) and cover for 5-6 minutes to let them steam, remove the cover and let the water boil off so the buns can recrisp.

I'm pretty biased because so many of my favorite foods are fried (or could be improved through frying), but these guys were so tasty. While the steamed buns have a refined and delicate air about them, these shengjianbao hit you over the head with deliciousness. Our friends tried these and wouldn't go back to the steamed ones. It's a ton of work to make all of this from scratch, but I definitely think the potsticker versions are worth the effort. The steamed ones will take some work to perfect. In the meantime, I can always pay the $6.50 for an order at Dintaifung.

On a side note, our friend Leah brought in our first non-kit lens, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens(Amazon Associate link) for us and it's been working miracles. Our friends and professional photographers Jerry & Ingrid exhorted us to go for the 50mm f/1.4 lens (at 3.5x the price), but we just couldn't bring ourselves to spend that much. Sorry, J & I! I'm a complete hack when it comes to photography, so the f/1.8 lens already makes my pictures 10 times better, which makes them almost passable. There's no zoom on it, so it's kind of a pain to have to back up from things to frame the shot, but we're really excited for this to be our starter lens. Hopefully there will be tastier pics of our cooking adventures in the months to come.


Barry said...

Those look so good.

Barry said...

Those look so good.