The ways of appreciating Chinese cuisine are often lost or shrouded in mystery due to a long history that stretches back thousands of years. Over time, it is inevitable for culture to evolve in order to stay relevant, and sometimes, it may become difficult to tell if tales are myth or fact. For example, there has been on-going discussion on whether you should burst your Xiao Long Bao before savouring it.
There is no better way to put it but no, you should NOT burst your Xiao Long Bao. Read on to find out why.
The making of Xiao Long Bao is a painstaking process
Look out for the folds as it tells you whether it is made by a skilled chef
For the uninitiated, a Xiao Long Bao is a steamed bun containing a generous filling of meat, and a gelatinous soup broth. It is typically prepared by steaming in small bamboo baskets and served with vinegar and ginger strips.
Each Xiao Long Bao requires at least six hours of boiling the broth, months of daily practice, and skills that cannot be bought. Even for the most hardworking trainee chefs, it takes at least three months of training and constant practice to master the art of perfecting a Xiao Long Bao. Making a Xiao Long Bao seems easy when you watch seasoned chefs knead their way through the dough seemingly effortlessly, but some don’t succeed even with grit and determination – you might call Xiao Long Bao-making a talent.
The toughest part of making a Xiao Long Bao is the folding of the dumpling skin. What differentiates a skilled chef from every other person is his ability to fold the dumplings well. Good Xiao Long Baos typically have between 18 to 20 folds each, which is quite a feat considering how small the dumplings are!
How do you tell if a Xiao Long Bao is of quality?
To tell if a Xiao Long Bao is of quality, there are three things you need to look at:
1. The broth
The broth is typically boiled for at least six hours in order to fully absorb the flavour of its ingredients. However, not all broth is done well. Sometimes, it is too watery or overly oily (with pieces of fat).
2. The meat
The meat filling should be flavourful and solid, but not too hard such that it seems overcooked. At the same time, it should retain its texture when bitten into, and not disintegrate into small pieces.
3. The skin
The skin of the dumpling is especially important for the Xiao Long Bao as it is the cradle holding your treasure. It must be tough enough to stay intact when the dumplings are moved or lifted, and yet remain thin enough to complement the rest of the filling.
How to properly appreciate your Xiao Long Bao?
With all the hard work that goes into a Xiao Long Bao, it is not surprising that the hardworking chefs hope that their patrons would be able to fully appreciate everything the dumplings have to offer.
We spoke to the head chef of Paradise Dynasty (at Changi Airport’s Terminal 3), and here is his recommended four-step method of enjoying your Xiao Long Bao:
1. Lift a Xiao Long Bao by its tip gently from the bamboo basket with your chopsticks and into your spoon.
If there is a time to test your chopsticks skills, this is it
2. Bite a small hole in the side of the Xiao Long Bao to allow the broth to flow out into your spoon. The reason for doing so is to allow the broth to cool slightly, so that it will not burn your tongue.
An alternative to this, if you do not like to separate the broth from the dumpling is to bite a small hole at the top of the dumpling. This will prevent the broth from flowing out, but still allows the soup to cool.
Here is where the anticipation starts to build
3. Drink the soup from your spoon to enjoy the rich flavor of the broth.
4. Finally, you can now… put the whole dumpling into your mouth for that extra burst of flavour, and bite into the juicy, tender meat filling.
If you are using the alternate method in step two, you may skip step three and proceed to step four immediately.
Savour the Xiao Long Bao while it is hot, preferably within five minutes from the time it is served. Some people may enjoy it with vinegar and ginger strips, but it is recommended to first try it as it is, in order to enjoy its natural flavour. Vinegar and ginger strips were traditionally served as condiments to counter the oily nature of the broth, but in recent years, chefs have modified recipes to lessen the broth’s oiliness, allowing patrons the liberty of having one more Xiao Long Bao without feeling guilty.
If you are at Changi Airport, hunt for these little treasures, regardless of whether you are flying or not.
Terminal 3, Public Area
Terminal 1, Transit Area