(Image credit: Dim Sum USA)
The late Anthony Bourdain went on record saying that one of his main reasons for booking a visit to Shanghai was for the xiaolongbao. He said, “I translate them as pillows of happiness that will scald your tongue and throat if you don’t know what you’re doing…ballistically designed delivery vehicles for pure pleasure…as they’re steamed, the delicious, delicious fat renders into a soup of the gods.” Yet be warned that there is a wrong way to eat this dish.
What Is Xiaolongbao?
While pronouncing it is a challenge to many westerners (think tsi-long-bow and you are pretty close), eating it properly is even more so. Bourdain was not far off the mark when he warned that you can scald the tongue when eating them. This is because they are a steamed bun that takes their name from the xialong basket in which they are steamed. And while they are similar to dumplings, they are not part of a soup. Instead, they are served with a broth to the side.
They are, as one writer aptly explained about how to eat these dumplings, “bite-sized food consist[ing] of a shell made from dough, which can come from several different sources of starch. It is soft and chewy. The inside contains hot soup made from a variety of ingredients.”
Often, diners feel they have to pop the entire dumpling into their mouth to get the full blend of flavors, and especially because the Chinese commonly use chopsticks to eat; a tool not conducive to nibbling. However, xiaolongbao are not sturdy enough to squeeze and eat as they sit pinched between chopsticks. Instead, they will usually leak their delicious broth back into the steamer or, worse, over the table top. Fingers don’t work, either, and it is instead a job for the chopsticks and the classic Chinese soup spoon.
It is best to describe the “how to” of xiaolongbao in steps, so, here goes:
- Lift your soup spoon close to the steamer and the dumpling you will soon enjoy
- With chopsticks in the other hand, gently lift the dumpling into the spoon. You can do this in one of two ways, “grab the dumpling close to the knot with your chopsticks and gently lift it from the steamer…or use a fork…”
- Never tug if it is stuck but instead gently lift and peel it away.
- Release a bit of the scalding “soup” inside by taking a nibble from the top and sipping the broth (after it has cooled briefly) or nipping the side and allowing a bit of the broth to dribble into the spoon. Then, sip the broth before consuming the dumpling.
- Yes, it says to eat the whole dumpling off of the spoon. By the time you have lifted it, popped it to drain some of the broth, let the broth cool and taken a few sips, it is usually cool enough to consume the bite-sized morsel in its entirety. If it is more than a bite size, take two or three bites holding it over the spoon with chopsticks.
And what about the “broth on the side”? As one write explained, most xiaolongbao is served with dipping sauce rather than broth and you can put some on the empty spoon before scooping it out of the steamer (if you’d like), dunk the bottom of the dumpling before transferring to the spoon or drizzling it over the dumpling in the spoon. Either way, use only a small amount in order to savor the amazing broth captured inside the dumpling.
Now you know how to say and eat xiaolongbao, so it is time to head out and enjoy some!