Xiaolongbao are synonymous with Shanghainese cuisine and are believed to have originated in the late 19th century.
The name xiaolongbao translates to ‘little basket bun’, with one story attributing its invention to restaurant owner Huang Mingxian who was motivated to create a bun that stood out from the rest.
Mingxian succeeded, with xiaolongbao containing a core with a point of difference — one that includes aspic; a jelly that liquefies when steamed.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and xiaolongbao is available across the globe, partly thanks to Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung. It’s the star dumpling for the restaurant chain; to the tune of receiving a Michelin star.
Hospitality speaks to New Shanghai’s Jason Feng and Yulongfu’s Emily Liu about the intricacies of xiaolongbao, where they learned to make the buns, stretching techniques and the ideal accompaniments (it’s not chilli oil).
Emily Liu opened Yulongfu in Melbourne with her husband Yong in late 2020. The eatery uses a recipe with deep roots, and is one that has been passed down since 1904.
Liu first tried her hand at making xiaolongbao at the age of eight, describing the skill as a rite of passage. “My great grandfather taught me how to make his prized xiaolongbao,” she says. “He had been preparing and selling his dumplings and buns since 1908 in Wenzhou in China’s Zhejiang province.”
Liu’s great grandfather later moved to Nanjing, which is the capital of the Jiangsu province in eastern China and roughly 300km from Shanghai. “He started to make and sell xiaolongbao there,” says Liu.
“His recipe was then passed down from generation to generation in our family and we continue to make them today.”
The Yulongfu co-owner has spent much of her life making xiaolongbao, mastering each of the pleats needed to form the bun. “I’ve had plenty of practice,” she says. “At Yulongfu, my husband is the xiaolongbao and dumpling-folding master. We work together to ensure each morsel is folded perfectly with 16 pleats that gather tightly at the top with a tiny pinprick.”
Jason Feng is heading up the newly opened New Shanghai restaurant in Collins Lane in Melbourne, and the restaurant has already been churning out up to 150 baskets of xiaolongbao a day.
Feng learned how to make the ‘soup dumpling’ in China, and says the basics can be taken on by skilled hands in just a few days. “The most important points are the filling and the dough,” says the chef. “The stretching technique is also important; if you don’t do it properly, the juice will flow out.”
Feng and Liu are both incredibly experienced in the art of dumpling- and bun-making, and say the difficulty of producing xiaolongbao is in the detail.
“They can be quite fiddly if you’re unfamiliar with the motions,” says Liu. “It certainly does take a level of skill and patience to master it. We roll the xiaolongbao dough out fresh [for each individual dumpling] and we want to ensure it’s thin, but not so thin it rips. You also don’t want it to be too thick so it’s undercooked or chewy once steamed.
“The main difficulty points are ensuring you don’t rip the skin, seasoning the meat filling and keeping each dumpling consistent in shape and size.”
Consistency is also key at New Shanghai, which has outlets in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Shanghai and Dubai. Feng can make one xiaolongbao in just 10 seconds, with the kitchen team only needing to weigh the buns if they feel a little heavy.
“Professionals usually know from sight,” he says. While the dough follows the same formula (water, salt, flour) as other dumplings, the intricate pleats are where xiaolongbao differs, with the dough necessitating stretching to form the buns correctly.
“Chefs need the skill to stretch because the dumpling has extra dough at the top, and that can only be achieved with a specific stretching technique,” says Feng.
One of the great pleasures of eating xiaolongbao is the aspic that spills out when the bun’s skin is pierced. Xiaolongbao aspic is made with water, pork skin, bones, Shaoxing wine and aromats such as ginger and spring onions.
The ingredients are boiled in a pot for a number of hours before being strained and left to refrigerate, where the soup turns into jelly form.
The jelly provides a burst of pork flavour to the bun, but it’s all about balance, and the meat filling is equally important. Under-seasoned meat can result in some soup dumplings missing the mark, and is often the difference between good and great. “The filling is really important,” says Feng. “Besides the juice, some places don’t have a flavourful filling, and the perfect xiaolongbao needs enough flavour throughout.”
Yulongfu make their filling using pork mince, egg white, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, salt, sugar, light soy sauce and white pepper — and the recipe won’t be changing any time soon. “Who else can say their dumplings come from a 100-year-plus-old family recipe?” says Liu “We take pride in the entire cooking process, from ensuring our meat filling is well seasoned to cooking [the buns so they] remain tender and juicy … each and every time.”
It takes just a few minutes to cook xiaolongbao in steamer baskets. New Shanghai’s commercial steamers are constantly on the go, with each basket taking around five minutes to get the job done. Yulongfu pack six xiaolongbao into dim sum baskets before they’re steamed. “It takes about nine minutes over a medium heat,” says Liu.
The buns are best savoured after leaving the steamer — but diners beware — the soup that dwells inside is molten hot. Feng suggests biting a small hole in the top of the dumpling to let it cool down a little before adding traditional condiments. “Vinegar and ginger goes on top,” he says. “Chilli oil is a personal preference.”
It’s a choose-your-own adventure at Yulongfu, but one thing is strongly recommended — eating them as soon as possible. “Our xiaolongbao are super soupy inside, so they are best enjoyed from the steam basket straight to your mouth for a fullflavoured experience,” says Liu. “However, we welcome our guests to enjoy as much soy sauce, chilli oil and vinegar as they please.”
In China, xiaolongbao transcends lunch or dinner status. “It’s a very traditional item for Shanghai people,” says Feng. “It can be a snack; it doesn’t have to be a main dish. All households in Shanghai eat xiaolongbao frequently.”
Liu is on the same page, and sums up the cultural importance of xiaolongbao in Shanghainese cuisine: “It remains an everyday food you can enjoy for breakfast,
lunch, afternoon tea or dinner,” she says. “Xiaolongbao is to Shanghai what meat pies are to Australia.”