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October 30, 2007

Xiao Long Bao

Dominic Armato
And now, please allow me a moment to wax poetic about one of my more recent culinary obsessions.

I can't recall when I first sampled these incredible little fellows, but it was probably at a business lunch in China where trying to determine what they were and where to get them would have been an exercise in futility. A lot of dishes I've had in China are like that. I'll sample something that absolutely floors me, and my hosts are at a loss to describe how it's made or even provide me with an English transliteration. And I'm left, years later, stumbling through clumsy descriptions of my vague memories as I desperately try to recapture that one amazing dish I had in that restaurant by that factory that one time. For a very long time, when I heard people mention soup dumplings, I had assumed they meant the type of dumplings one might find in soup, and not the other way around. By the time I figured it out, years of potential Xiao Long Bao consumption had been wasted. Lately, I've been trying to make up for lost time.

Dominic Armato
They don't look like much, but every time I pop one my thoughts drift in the direction of "whoever thought these things up is a freaking genius". They're a perfect example of exceptional technique squeezing every last bit of deliciousness out of otherwise simple ingredients. Appearances aside, they're actually very small buns rather than dumplings. Similar to the tomato's classification as a fruit, however, the distinction is more technical than practical. The outer skin is actually bun dough that's been rolled extremely thin, as opposed to a traditional dumpling wrapper. In addition to its lighter texture, the bun dough also provides some much needed stability, as Xiao Long Bao have a liquid core. There's some solid pork filling, but this filling is folded together with a chilled pork aspic that, upon steaming, turns into a broth. So unlike a typical pork dumpling that might ooze a little juice, Xiao Long Bao let forth a torrent of delicately flavored soup when you bite into them. Lesser bao will be mostly meat with a little broth, and the skin may be thick and doughy. But the good ones are easily 50-75% soup by volume, with a skin that's thin to the point of being translucent and a shape that droops and jiggles like a small pouch that's barely containing the liquid held inside. Originating in Nanxiang, near Shanghai, the most traditional fillings are either pork or a pork and crab mixture, the latter usually topped with a tiny bit of crab roe to identify the contents. A little dip in Chinkiang vinegar with slivers of fresh ginger, and you're good to go. They're frequently eaten by sitting the bun in a soup spoon, carefully sipping out the soup and then dipping and consuming the rest. But even if this is the more traditional method (a subject for debate), I say screw tradition. There's nothing else in the food world like that gush of warm, liquid pork when you pop the entire bun in your mouth.

Dominic Armato
One of my goals this past trip was to get a good XLB fix, and my quest led me to two places. Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese chain with a number of locations worldwide, including one in Los Angeles. Din Tai Fung actually sports a fairly extensive menu (including some killer pickles... have I mentioned that I adore Chinese pickles?), but their claim to fame is the XLB. Every bun folder reportedly undergoes three months of training at the mothership in Taiwan before being returned home to prepare bao. True or not, they clearly run a tight ship. In the bun room at the Hong Kong location, enclosed in glass and visible from three sides, a team of chefs fold bun after bun after bun before sending them off for steaming. The fellow at the beginning of the assembly line was flipping off marble-sized bits of dough from a long coil using his fingers, and he'd toss every tenth bit onto a digital scale, I can only presume to assure that he was maintaining a perfectly uniform size. Din Tai Fung also claims that every bun has exactly 18 folds. But really, when presented with a steamer full of hot buns, who's going to stop to count?

Dominic Armato
Technically speaking, Din Tai Fung's XLB, pictured above, are a marvel. Maybe it's my imagination, but I'd swear you can almost see through the bun. They're incredibly delicate with very little solid filling. And in a little touch that almost seems like showing off, they aren't even sealed. Where the dough is bunched together at the top, there's a 3-4 millimeter open hole, such that you could stick in a bar straw and suck out the contents if you were so inclined. From a technical standpoint, I've never had more perfect XLB. That said, they actually weren't my favorite of the trip. Though some may prefer them so, I thought the flavor on the Din Tai Fung XLB was exceptionally light. A little too light for my tastes. On the left, however, you see the XLB I had at Ye Shanghai in Pacific Place. They aren't the textbook perfect buns you get at Din Tai Fung. There's a little less soup and more solid filling. You get a nice jiggle at the bottom, but the wrapper doesn't have quite the same ethereal quality. The flavor, however, I enjoyed quite a bit more. Primarily, the soup wasn't quite as skinny, and I thought the extra fat made for a richer, more luscious flavor. I'm distinguishing between champions here, but while I'd send folks to Din Tai Fung for the textbook example, I find the bao at Ye Shanghai to be a little more succulent. Between the two, there's an Olympian ideal of Xiao Long Bao that may simply be too delicious for mere mortals. Forced to choose between minor flaws, however, I'll trade a little technical perfection for a little flavor.

Din Tai Fung
3F Cailan Delicacy, Huangpu (Whampoa) Garden
Kowloon, Hong Kong
+852 2330 4886
Ye Shanghai
Pacific Place, 88 Queensway
Admiralty, Hong Kong
+852 2918 9833


NYC, China Town, Joe's Shanghai. They have them there. I think they might call them something different. Blissful.

Did you guys know that there is a Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles? Well, Arcadia to be exact, but it is 1 of 3 in the world.


Yeah, I know! I have a couple of pals out there who have been scouring L.A. for XLB, and they hadn't yet done DTF.

But there are also a lot more than three. I count 41 branches in eight or nine countries. I believe there are three in Taiwan. It sounds like they have mega-strict QC, but I'm skeptical about the L.A. branch, simply because of pig availability. The pigs in China are like a completely different animal.

Dom - ok, I've been reading this site for four years, and only noticed this post now. Anyway, I don't have much to add, except to say that I'm Chinese, grew up just outside of Queens, and never had xiao long bao until around ten years ago (at the aforementioned Joe's Shanghai in Flushing).

This was the event which led me to my current food obsession; as a native Chinese food eater, I found myself enraged that my parents could keep such a secret from me for so long. How could they do this to me? Didn't they LOVE me?

Whoever invented it should be canonized, and his children awarded the Nobel prize posthumously. Living in Chicago since my college days, I crave many things NY from time to time, but just the thought of these little balls of porky perfection make me sigh.

Le Sigh.

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