I’ll start this post off by warning you that this post does NOT contain a recipe. Rest assured, I definitely plan on posting one at a future date once I work out some kinks.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of soup dumplings aka xiaolongbao (xlb), they look something like this:
The act of consuming xlb is an experience in and of itself. The surgical precision necessary to pluck the dumpling out of the steamer basket with chopsticks requires the perfect balance of gentle manipulation and assertive force. Too soft a touch and you’ll never liberate the xlb from the bottom of the basket. Too rough and a tear liberates the liquid magic inside. Should you be successful in transferring the xlb to your soup spoon, you are nearly ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor. The smallest nibble unleashes the hot, savory soup from inside. As you finally consume the leftover filling, dumpling skin, with a combination of dark vinegar and ginger, you know you have made it in the world.
Although the last paragraph borders (okay fine…shamelessly dives headfirst into) the melodramatic, it is not an exaggeration to say that this particular food has launched an empire. But let’s switch gears and talk about the thing that makes soup dumplings special…namely, the soup. I used to believe that the incorporation of the soup involved the finest syringe injecting broth straight into a finished dumpling. This is decidedly NOT the case and instead involves a concept we discussed briefly in another post, hydrocolloids.
If you have ever bought a rotisserie chicken from the store and put it in your fridge, you may have noticed a gelatinous yellow glaze on the bottom of the container when you opened it the next day. If you tasted it, you would have noticed that this “meat jello” contained a lot of that chicken flavor. Therein lies the secret to soup dumplings. Back in the day broth would be made containing a lot of animal bones and/or skin. These particular parts contain a lot of collagen. Upon cooling the finished broth, one could skim the surface of it for all the leftover broth-flavored gelatin. Take a cube of gelatin, stick it into a dumpling with the filling, steam it, and the gelatin block liquifies and becomes the soup in the soup dumpling.
In the modern food industry, it is a hassle to continuously make broth, let it cool down, and skim the surface for the soup gelatin. So I asked Chef McCue how we do it today. He didn’t know for sure so did me a solid and called up his chef buddy in Taiwan who revealed that they utilize something called aspic.
Aspic is very simply gelatinized stock – stock + unflavored clear gelatin. Just like how your mom used to make jello, you heat up your stock with the gelatin mixed in, stir until it dissolves, and put it into a container that you put into the fridge. After a while the mixture turns to a broth jello that you can cut into cubes and use in your soup dumplings. Keep in mind that gelatin is a reversible hydrocolloid which is why it can turn back to a liquid upon heating. Another great thing about making aspic is that you can use it with a veggie stock (like we did with a mushroom stock) with great results.