Hello readers, it is I, the invisible Asian! I know it’s been a while, I’ve been traveling (or as I like to call it research) and certainly eating well.
Shanghai soup dumplings (Xiao long bao in Mandarin) are tiny dumplings filled with pork, gelatinous soup and steamed. So when you bite into it, a squirt of pork flavored soup gushes out before you finish the whole thing. They are possibly the best culinary contribution ever by the Shanghainese. I recently spent some time in Shanghai (which you will hear more about later) and I went on a 5 day dumpling binge, all for research of course. I had them plain, with deliciously rich hairy crab roe, thin skinned, thick skinned, from street side vendors to fancy restaurants. And occasionally I had them multiple times in a day…
Now that I’m back in San Fran and faced with more then oh a walk down the block to fill my dumpling cravings, my other option was obviously to make them. Besides, it’s a damn sexy food project. So there are 3 components to a good soup dumpling, the skin, the soup and the filling. The skin is really quite amazing. It should be thin as you can possibly make it, still hold all the soup in when steamed and ideally has at least 18 pleats on top. The soup is usually pork stock made from pork skin so the collagen forms a jelly. This is mixed in the filling and when steamed it turns into soup. I’m a traditionalist when it comes the filling, meaning pork. No crazy shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts and such. Heathens.
I did some research on the existing recipes out there and found quite the range. A lot of them are wildly inaccurate and while others are better they are also missing a few steps. Over the course of a few days and help from my friend Laura and Little Miss, I ended up with the following recipe. It’s based off the one from Saveur but with many of my own changes. And since we also decided to have some Dungeness crab that day, we had to make some with crab meat as well!
Soup aka Pork Jello:
There are recipes out there that uses store bought gelatin and chicken stock. I’m sure it’s still tasty but not traditional. If you can’t find pork skin then by all means use gelatin. I usually buy pork belly and cut the skin off.
8 oz or so pork skin, a little more or less won’t matter too much
3 big slices of ginger
a couple pieces of country ham bones with a little bit of the meat still attached, I use pre-sliced Virginia ham. You can use just a bit of country ham without the bone but don’t substitute with regular ham.
6 cups water
1 tsp salt (or more to taste)
Cut the pork skin into big chunks, put it into a soup pot with the ham bone and enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 30 seconds or so, you should see some scum form. Now pour all the water and scum off and rinse off the pork and ham. This blanches the pork and makes for a clearer soup.
Return the pork and ham along with the rest of the ingredients to the pot.
Bring the water back to a simmer and simmer with the lid slightly ajar for 2- 3 hours.
Strain all the solids out and you will be left with a couple cups of pork stock.
Pour the liquid into a container and let it set in the fridge. After a few hours, you should have pork jello!
Now if you end up with a lot of pork jello, don’t worry. It freezes quite well, but it will end up looking like pork granita (which I’ll have to find a use for.) Just melt it in the microwave and re-gel it in the fridge. And as Little Miss pointed out, you can also mix in crab stock at this point. Just don’t dilute it so much the jello doesn’t set.
Pork jello cut up
Ok, so you can chicken out and buy some dumpling wrappers like some recipes suggest. But you already made pork jello, so why quit now? You did make pork jello right? Be a man, grab a rolling pin and get your hands dirty. Making the dough is quite easy and really satisfying once you get the hang of it. Home made skins also taste so much better. By the end of the day, Little Miss and I were cranking these out.
For 16 dumplings
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 + cup hot water
pinch of salt
Combine the flour and the hot water in a bowl and use a wooden spoon to form the dough into a ball, you might need more water if the mix is too dry.
Flour a work surface and scrap out your dough on to it. Now knead the hell out of it. Knead until you think you can’t possibly knead anymore. Let it rest for a minute or two and then knead some more. The ball should be smooth, feels very solid but easy to stretch.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for an hour. The amount of kneading and resting is really key here. It lets you roll out paper thin skins without it breaking.
After my dumpling binge, I think I’ve found a standard for the filling. The pork flavor should really dominate, with a little hint of sweetness and ginger. Not too much garlic or scallions. More importantly, the texture. The ones I liked the best had a silky texture in the meat while too many had a grainy chunkiness to it. The solution was using a fatty pork mix, adding corn starch and then pureeing the mixture a bit in the food processor.
6 oz fatty ground pork
2 tsp. grated ginger
white part of 1 scallion, minced
1 tiny clove of garlic, grated
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. Asian sesame oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. corn starch
pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients and mix well.
Now transfer the filling into a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough paste. Not into complete mush but you want the chunks gone.
Making of the dumplings:
Ok, finally the fun part…
Take out the pork jello. I like to have an equal portion of filling and jello. But it certainly doesn’t hurt too much if you use more or less. Use a fork to break up the jello into small pieces and mix in well with the filling. Don’t leave the jello in big chunks, it makes it hard to wrap the dumplings.
Taste the filling/jello mixture and correct for seasoning. No, I’m not telling you to taste raw pork. Take a spoonful and nuke it for 15 seconds.
Unwrap the dough and roll it into a rope on a floured surface. Then cut it into 16 pieces. So here’s where you might freak out. Cause if you done this the right way, those pieces are going to look like the size of a big piece of gum. And you are thinking, there’s no way that thing will ever be able to hold fillings much less soup. But have faith.
Size comparisons of the dough piece
Continue on, roll the dough pieces into a ball, squash them into a circle with the palm of your hands. Then take the dough circle in your fingers and lay one side on the counter, roll the rolling pin in from the outside edge and rotate every quarter turn. Ideally you end up with a 2 1/2 to 3 inch wide skin that’s a little bit thicker in the middle then the edges.
Now you spoon up about a table spoon of filling and start pleating. Go easy on the filling at first, you don’t want to overload it. I won’t even try to describe the pleating process. There’s a nice slideshow here.
Get your steamer ready, you can line the basket with wilted napa cabbage leaves or parchment paper with some holes poked in there.
Finished product. I really need a bamboo steamer!
Steam the dumplings for 8 minutes over medium heat and eat! I like to dip mine in Chinese black vinegar with slivers of ginger in it. I tasted a few brands and this is the one I’m currently using, it’s the most similar to the ones I had growing up.