One of the training classes around career development I’ve written for my company lays out the premise that you can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are going and how you will get there. Having a clear destination and taking the time to plan your route are important of course, not just in career development but in cooking, too. So it was all but certain that my desire to make Xiao Long Bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings, hereafter abbreviated as XLB) was bound to fail as I had no clear road map for getting there.
I definitely had my destination in mind! XLB are my favorite Chinese dumpling and my favorite place to have them is at Din Tai Fung, a chain originating in Taipei. In fact, here’s a little video about Din Tai Fung’s XLB from my November trip to Taipei with Tawn to visit Andy and Sugi.
The destination was clear, but as I started reading the recipes and learning about the technique, I realized that this was going to be a lot more effort than I was ready to expend for some weeknight dumplings. Surely, I thought, I could just find my way through the wilderness without a map. Couldn’t I just, you know, feel my way to the XLB?
(Yeah, you know where this story is going, don’t you?)
I started with what I did know about XLB: the filling was a mixture of minced pork, ginger, garlic, green onions, soy sauce, rice wine, and white pepper. Easy enough. I gathered those together.
The “secret ingredient” of these soup dumplings is that you gelatinize broth and mix the cubes of the gelatine into the filling so that the broth melts as the dumplings steam, leaving a nice pool of juicy goodness to slurp up as you eat the XLB. So I used some broth and some gelatine and made broth jell-o. Easy enough.
When I mixed the cubes of broth into the pork mixture, though, the kitchen was too warm and they started melting. Before you knew it, I had no more cubes but instead had a watery filling mixture. Oh, no!
The next step was to fill the dumpling wrappers with that perfect twisted pleat, shown above in the handiwork of the Din Tai Fung cooks. I was using gyoza (potsticker) wrappers purchased premade at the store. Even before I started filling them, I had a suspicion that my lack of a road map was going to lead me down a dead-end street. Sure enough, I couldn’t get the gyoza wrappers to hold that pleated shape.
Getting hungry, I just went with a simple half-moon fold, trying to satisfy myself with being able to keep the runny filling (thanks to the no longer gelatinous broth) from leaking out.
The end result wasn’t pretty but actually tasted just fine. Nobody in their right mind would confuse this mess of a dumpling with XLB, but for a weeknight it was good enough. Sometimes, driving without a road map takes you somewhere other than you intended, but a place that is perfectly suitable nonetheless.