The World of Chinese - - Contents -

No, you aren't sup­posed to break the skin, and yes, ev­ery city on the Yangtze has its own recipe: The xi­ao­long­bao is ar­guably China's best known steamed bun, but there's much more to its story than hot soup and con­tro­versy

Ear­lier this year, Time Out Lon­don landed it­self in the soup for mis­rep­re­sent­ing a beloved Chi­nese snack— xi­ao­long­bao (小笼包, “small steam-bas­ket buns”), char­ac­ter­ized by their translu­cent skin and pip­inghot juice, sur­round­ing a rich fill­ing of meat or seafood.

Time Out’s video—class­ily sub­ti­tled “Love pop­ping spots AND eat­ing dumplings?”—was in­tended to pro­mote a new dim sum restau­rant. In­stead, it showed din­ers vi­ciously pok­ing holes in the buns’ del­i­cate skin and let­ting its de­li­cious soup seep out, along with the tears of Chi­nese foodlovers around the world.

Af­ter thou­sands of an­gry tweets, open let­ters from food­ies (“[it’s] the equiv­a­lent of smear­ing jam all over your plate/din­ing ta­ble,” wrote one, “and eat­ing your toast plain”), and even the scorn of the Global Times’ Chi­nese ver­sion, the mag­a­zine was forced to is­sue an apol­ogy for its scan­dalous de­pic­tion of the “su­per drib­bly… ex­plod­ing dumplings,” adding, “We’d like to in­vite the knowl­edge­able food-lovers of China and Asia to tell us what tra­di­tional del­i­ca­cies we Lon­don­ers should try, and how to eat them prop­erly.”

They could have just asked a Chi­nese teacher. The proper way of eat­ing xi­ao­long­bao has long been com­mu­ni­cated by short rhyme: “Open a win­dow [in the skin], slurp the soup, swal­low the bao, and your mouth is full of fla­vor” (先开窗,后喝汤,一口吞,满口香)—es­sen­tially, the op­po­site of Time Out’s method. A per­fectly made xi­ao­long­bao is hon­ored with an­other Chi­nese say­ing, “The skin doesn’t break when it’s picked up, the bot­tom doesn’t fall out when it’s flipped; suck out a mouth­ful of gravy, the taste is sa­vory but not too rich.”

Achiev­ing this stan­dard of per­fec­tion is no mean feat, though the steps them­selves are fairly sim­ple: Pork skin is sliced and boiled in wa­ter un­til it forms a thick broth, which is then cooled un­til it con­geals into jelly. The jelly is added to the fill­ing, so that when the buns are steamed, it will melt back into soup.

There are nu­mer­ous on­line train­ing cour­ses promis­ing to teach this process in two to three days. It’s ru­mored, how­ever, that xi­ao­long­bao chefs at the Miche­lin-starred Din Tai Fung, an in­ter­na­tional chain of bao restau­rants founded in Tai­wan, un­dergo a six­month train­ing pe­riod. Yang Ji­hua, the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion owner of the chain, told Xin­hua News back in 2012 that rig­or­ous stan­dards are the se­cret to the com­pany’s world­wide ac­claim: “Fill­ings are mixed in a cen­tral kitchen kept at 18 de­grees [Cel­sius] for pork or 16 de­grees for shrimp.”

The size and weight of the in­gre­di­ents are also con­trolled: The fill­ing for each bao must weigh 16 grams, the skin 5 grams. The fi­nal prod­uct should have 18 creases at the top, weigh 21 grams each, and un­dergo four min­utes in the steam­ing bas­ket be­fore serv­ing. Yang told Xin­hua he gets calls from en­trepreneurs want­ing to fran­chise his restau­rant ev­ery day, but re­jects them all, be­cause “to cre­ate a busi­ness that will last 100 years, one has to go slow.”

But al­though Din Tai Fung has been a fa­vorite pick of New York Times food crit­ics since 1993 (when it was the only Asian restau­rant on their lists), the brand’s per­for­mance on the Chi­nese main­land is av­er­age at best. For most, xi­ao­long­bao is pri­mar­ily a break­fast food and street snack as op­posed to gourmet sit-down fare, and sev­eral cities have their own vari­a­tion, though they don’t all go by the same name.

This has also bred in­tense com­pe­ti­tion: The short­list of those claim­ing to make China’s best or most au­then­tic xi­ao­long­bao in­clude Shang­hai—ar­guably the best known— Hangzhou, Wuxi, Nan­jing, Suzhou, and Changzhou on the Yangtze River Delta, as well as Wuhu and Huizhou in An­hui prov­ince and Kaifeng, in He­nan.

The town of Nanx­i­ang (南翔), now part of Shang­hai’s Jiad­ing dis­trict, is one place cur­rently win­ning this race: “Nanx­i­ang Xiao­long,” which claims to date back to 1871, is a branded trade­mark whose buns are sold in the frozen aisles of su­per­mar­kets all around the coun­try. A restau­rant called Nanx­i­ang Xiao­long Man­tou, near the City God Tem­ple in Shang­hai, has sup­pos­edly had lo­cals and tourists lin­ing up for bao al­most ev­ery morn­ing for over a cen­tury.

Nanx­i­ang Xiao­long’s recipe was passed down ex­clu­sively from mas­ter to ap­pren­tice. Li Jian­gang, its six­th­gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor, has been mak­ing bao over 40 years. In 2000, Li de­cided to stan­dard­ize the method of prepa­ra­tion: wrap­pers 1.5-mil­lime­ter thick, weigh­ing 8 grams; fill­ing of 16 grams in each bao; and the cooked bao should have a di­am­e­ter of 2.5 cen­time­ters and 18 creases at the top. These guide­lines were adopted into

China’s list of Na­tional In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage in 2014.

Other cities, how­ever, con­tinue to put up a fight. Lo­cated on China’s cen­tral plains, Kaifeng has lit­tle ge­o­graphic or cul­tural sim­i­lar­ity to the deca­dent bao heart­land of the Yangtze Delta. But com­pared to the up­start, im­mi­grant-built Shang­hai, it has an­cient his­tory on its side. Kaifeng’s soup-filled guan­tang­bao (灌汤包) is es­sen­tially an en­larged ver­sion of the Nanx­i­ang and Din Tai Fung vari­a­tions and claims to be the an­ces­tor to xi­ao­long­bao; it traces its ori­gin to the North­ern Song dy­nasty (960 – 1127), when Kaifeng, a Yel­low River en­trepôt, was named the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal. The size of an adult’s fist, guan­tang­bao is char­ac­ter­ized by rich, thick soup and soft skin folded to re­sem­ble a chrysan­the­mum—a flat shape and deep, swirly creases.

When the Song were driven south by the Jurchen in­vaders, even­tu­ally set­ting up a new cap­i­tal in Hangzhou, the soup bao was al­legedly in­tro­duced to the Jiang­nan (“River South”) re­gion as well. To­day, Hangzhou puts up a good show­ing in the xi­ao­long­bao power rank­ings, em­pha­siz­ing that its bao are dis­tin­guished by their crab-roe fill­ing and creamy tex­ture, which is caused by the bat­ter be­ing mixed with boil­ing wa­ter.

It’s also one of the like­lier va­ri­eties you’ll en­counter out­side the Yangtze re­gion, due to the size of the di­as­pora from the coun­ties sur­round­ing Hangzhou. Wuxi re­torts that its xi­ao­long­bao are richer, bulkier, with a del­i­cate hint of sugar in the fill­ing and a chewy tex­ture. It’s of­ten spo­ken of in pair with the sim­i­lar, but sug­ar­less, Changzhou xi­ao­long­bao, which ad­ver­tises it­self with an­other lo­cal say­ing, “It’s bet­ter to wait for the bao than let the bao wait for you”—that is, the diner might have to queue up for the de­li­cious bao, but the del­i­cacy cer­tainly never has to wait for any din­ers.

What it is about these tiny soup bombs that make emo­tions run to boil­ing point? Folk wis­dom says it’s due to the name, since the char­ac­ter 笼(“steam­ing bas­ket”) is a homonym for龙 (“dragon”), the sym­bol of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion. There’s also the the­ory that cities in the South, in par­tic­u­lar, scram­ble to claim xi­ao­long­bao as their own be­cause it epit­o­mizes the values of Jiang­nan cui­sine—an out­wardly del­i­cate ap­pear­ance, con­ceal­ing a riot of com­plex and deca­dent fla­vors. It’s also as­so­ci­ated with other Jiang­nan cul­tural el­e­ments like tea-drink­ing or flower-watch­ing, as it’s fre­quently served as a snack dur­ing both ac­tiv­i­ties.

Its pop­u­lar­ity is such that the name, xi­ao­long­bao, has be­come some­thing like a brand. As the more pedan­tic Jiang­nan lo­cals will tell you, its tra­di­tional name is sim­ply tang­bao (soup bao) or xiao­long man­tou, man­tou (馒头) be­ing what north­ern­ers call steamed buns with no fill­ing. Purists in He­nan also be­moan the grad­ual re­place­ment of the name guan­tang­bao with “Kaifeng xi­ao­long­bao,” which they feel is pan­der­ing to the rest of the coun­try. There are even over­seas Chi­nese restau­ra­teurs who have fab­ri­cated a con­nec­tion be­tween these xi­ao­long­bao and Bruce Lee, whose Chi­nese name is Li Xiao­long (李小龙), to sell crowd­pleas­ing “Bruce Lee dumplings” and “kung fu dumpling spe­cials.”

While it’s not easy to de­cide which area has the best xi­ao­long­bao, bizarrely, the ti­tle “China’s No. 1 Bao” (中华第一包) goes to none of them. It is claimed by Tian­jin’s Goubuli (狗不理, lit­er­ally, “Dogs Ig­nore”) restau­rant, whose bao are also on the Na­tional In­tan­gi­ble Her­itage list (the dish has noth­ing to do with dogs, but refers to the founder of the restau­rant, “Puppy”)—now that’s a scan­dal.

A chef pre­pares a sim­ple xi­ao­long­bao recipe

Vis­i­tors at the 2012 Nanx­i­ang Cul­ture Fes­ti­val Rick­shaw driv­ers, of­fer­ing hu­man-pow­ered trans­port, line a street in Bei­jing in the 1920s en­joy their fa­vorite lo­cal snack

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