It took chef Jasper Shen two and a half years to master the pinching, pulling and twisting technique needed to create a perfect Shanghai soup dumpling.
"It's all about feel," Shen says, as he demonstrates his routine in my kitchen.
In Portland, it's heartening to see Shen's expert technique as he lays out the dumplings. He practiced, he says, every day of those two and a half years. By the time his restaurant, named XLB, opens in North Portland in January, he will already have put in hundreds of hours of reps, all devoted to making the perfect dumpling.
Until the '90s, almost no one in America had ever tasted a xiao long bao soup dumpling—XLB for short. But since Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung took the XLB international two decades ago, opening shops all over the world, the cult of the dumpling has become fervid. New Yorkers and San Franciscans who move to Portland cast around desperately and vainly for a good XLB.
Though dumplings are of ancient provenance, the XLB has a relatively short history. San Francisco food writer Patricia Unterman attributes the XLB's origins to an unknown, late-19th-century Chinese baker who set up a soup dumpling stand outside a popular public garden in Nanxiang, a village on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Encased in a delicate, nearly translucent pleated purse of noodle dough, each XLB contains a shot of blistering pork broth and a nugget of ground pork. The allure lies in the tender bite-and-slide of noodle, the subtle seasoning and chew of meat, and the mouth-filling savor of the soup. Maybe there's the element of risk, too—of failing to get soup, meat and noodle down the hatch without spilling or of ingesting scalding soup.
Whatever the source of its ineffable attraction, once you've had a perfect XLB, you too will forever crave the elegant harmony of its ingredients.
I stumbled on my first XLB at a branch of Din Tai Fung in Sydney after noticing a line of supplicants and then the exhibition kitchen, with its brigade of prep cooks in white smocks and surgical masks turning out dozens of dumplings. The experience was revelatory. The soup burn on the roof of my mouth healed quickly, and I had to go back the next day. I was powerless to do otherwise.
Although you can get XLBs from two Din Tai Fung outlets in the Seattle area, Portland's XLB offerings have been hit-and-miss at best, though the newly opened Duck House Chinese Restaurant near Portland State University makes a decent version.
That's expected to change in January, when Shen, who co-founded Portland's Aviary restaurant after years of cooking in high-end New York City kitchens, opens his own XLB counter in the former Lardo location on North Williams Avenue. Shen's restaurant will serve a few kinds of buns, noodle dishes and stir-fried greens. But the focus will be on its namesake dumplings.
Those looking for a romanticized recounting of a young Jasper learning how to make soup dumplings at the knees of his grandma are in for disappointment. A self-professed ABC ("American-born Chinese"), the 37-year-old Shen picked up the craft watching YouTube videos.
But already, each element of Shen's XLB is its own art form. "The dough has to be made with all-purpose flour and warm water to allow for faster gluten development," Shen explains. The dough is weighed out into small pieces and shaped into balls, which are rolled out with a dowel to paper-thin circles maybe 3 inches in diameter.
Although Din Tai Fung offers pork and pork-and-crab versions of its XLB, Shen is sticking with pork alone. The ground meat is combined with ginger, soy, sesame oil, rice wine, a little cornstarch and Shen's own nontraditional touch, minced garlic chives.
The broth begins with water and pork bones accompanied by a mirepoix (chopped carrots, onions and celery) plus whole black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, coriander seeds, a bit of clove, dried shiitake mushroom and kombu. With all those glutamates in the mix, you know this broth is going to have plenty of body. The mixture gets cooked down for about six hours. Then, it's strained and refrigerated overnight. The resulting gelatinized broth goes into the food processor "until it pebbles," says Shen, to be mixed with the meat before the XLBs are assembled.
Using just the right ratio of ingredients and forming the dumplings properly will allow them to steam to perfection. The only further addition is a little dipping sauce of red or black vinegar (optionally combined with soy sauce) and a few threads of fresh ginger.
As I watch Shen spin out XLBs with the muscle memory that can only come with countless hours of practice, he recounts common pitfalls that can yield torn and leaky soup dumplings—an insult to demanding customers.
"Too much air or broth in the dumpling, or a skin that's rolled out unevenly, can lead to a blowout," Shen says. But even a well-made XLB can leak, especially in the hands of a novice nosher (see here for tips).
As we relax over a freshly steamed basket of Shen's XLBs, he mentions two uncles who ran restaurants and offers a reflection on the Chinese experience in America that seems to run in his family: "The thing they know is food."
Jasper Shen's restaurant XLB is expected to open in January at 4090 N Williams Ave.