A House With a Pig in It

The art of making xiaolongbao, dim sum's juiciest dumpling.

Xiaolongbao, after being cooked. (Photo by Eric Pratt)

Swing by Shanghai Dumpling King on any foggy Friday night and there’s sure to be a crowd of people huddled on the sidewalk outside, waiting for a seat. Inside, there are stacks of bamboo baskets filled with a doughy, soupy treat that makes 45 minutes in the cold well worth the wait. Xiaolongbao, commonly known as “soup dumplings,” are tiny, golf ball-sized bites made of a delicate dough and filled with minced pork and a sweet, salty broth that will often burn the tip of your tongue if eaten too quickly.

Xiaolongbao originated in Shanghai, where they’re a common sight on dim sum carts in restaurants and as a snack, made fresh on the side of the road. But for many Westerners, the mystery of just how the soup actually gets in the dumpling — and how to properly eat it without making a huge mess — remains elusive. SF Weekly tracked down an expert on the matter: China Live co-owner Cindy Wong-Chen.

“The Shanghainese love broth,” Wong-Chen says as she leads us around the large upstairs dumpling kitchen. China Live has several open kitchen stations, so the fact that this one is hidden from view makes it feel almost secretive. Inside the large, cool room, three women are lined up at a long metal table. One pulls a small piece of dough out of a bowl and rolls it into a ball. The next flattens it into circle with a wooden dowel. And the third piles minced pork and cubes of gelatin on top, before expertly stretching the dough over the meat, and twisting it into a dainty swirl on top. The process looks easy, but it requires a fair amount of skill.

“With xiaolongbao, you want them all to look the exact same size,” Wong-Chen explains. “You don’t want too much of a knot on top. But you have to be careful to stretch the dough enough, because otherwise it won’t close. That’s why the twisting motion is so important.”

The method by which xiaolongbao are made is just as important as what’s inside them. As is traditional, China Live makes theirs with minced pork.

“The Chinese eat a lot of pork,” Wong-Chen says. “The Chinese character for house has a pig inside it. So it’s very much a part of what we do — and it is very tasty.”

The gelatin is also made of pork, but China Live’s contains a special ingredient: chicken feet. Pork stock is boiled down to create a rich flavor, but it lacks the gelatinous quality needed to coalesce. Chicken feet urn the condensed liquid into a natural gelatin, which is chilled, cut into cubes, wrapped in the raw pork, and slipped inside each dumpling.

There’s even more to it than that. The temperature at which the gelatin melts as the dumpling is steamed is also important — as is the amount included in each piece. It’s a tricky balance of artistry, cooking, and chemistry.

Once the dumplings are steamed in their bamboo trays — always separated by an inch, so that the skin doesn’t stick — they’re served immediately to the table. And no matter what else is in front of you, Wong-Chen says soup dumplings must be eaten quickly, before the texture of the dough goes from delicate and stretchy to gummy and chewy.

But, as any newbie has discovered the hard way, xiaolongbao are not the easiest of dumplings to eat. Wong-Chen demonstrates the best way to get the most out of them. First, gently pick one out of the steamer with chopsticks, and place it in a flat spoon. Hold the spoon in your non-dominant hand, and place a few pieces of vinegar-soaked ginger on top. Bite a small hole in the upper third of the dumpling, and suck out the broth. Then, use chopsticks to pick it up and eat the rest.

It’s not easy. But the alternative — taking a large bite out of the side while holding it mid-air between chopsticks — results in a messy puddle below, and the loss of the valuable broth.

The tricky factor doesn’t seem to deter people from ordering basket after basket of soup dumplings.

“These are really addictive,” Wong-Chen says. “Everyone comes in and orders them.”

And with three people on hand to craft each one, making xiaolongbao is not an insignificant use of time and money. But the results — sweet, hot, meaty broth wrapped in a delicate doughy package — are sure to have people fighting with the rest of the table over who gets the last one.

Check out more from our feature on the best Dim Sum in San Francisco here:

The Best Dim Sum in San Francisco
Led by our love of xiaolongbao, of course.

Dabbing in Dim Sum, at Harvest on Geary
One dispensary’s monthly event offers dabbers a little sum-thin’ somethin’ of a delicious dim sum buffet — and you won’t get a food coma.

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