Gelatin. Melting. Diplomacy. And how the xiao long bao has them all.
Bite into a xiao long bao (小笼包 – Chinese steamed soup dumpling) and the soup oozes out tantalisingly. Absolutely yummilcious!
But wait! How did they get the soup into the xiao long bao? Did they inject it with a syringe? Drill a hole in the dumpling skin, pour in the soup, and somehow bandage it all up after? Or maybe they used magic to wrap dumpling skin around the soup (you try wrapping water with anything…)?
The secret is gelatin. Gelatin is made by breaking down (i.e. denaturing) the collagen found in connective tissue. It helps to make food juicy and soft . More importantly, it has a jelly-like molecular structure that holds a lot of water, is a semi-solid at room temperature, but melts when heated. (Click on the links in the preceding sentences to read the three related 1-Minute NomNoms!).
Xiao long bao recipes (such as Lucky Peach’s and Epicurous’) call for a broth made of meat and (usually) commercially produced gelatin. This is allowed to set and then refrigerated. The gelatin, which can hold a lot of liquid many times its weight, traps the soup inside. This chilled gelatinized broth is then mixed with with the dumplings’ ingredients such as meats, salt, pepper, scallions etc. Wrap the combined concoction in the dumpling skins.
Here’s how the chilled gelatinized broth looks like:
When you then steam the dumplings, the gelatin will melt, releasing the soup. When we break the dumpling skin, either by biting or by using a pair of chopsticks, the soup oozes out (see video below). The mystery is solved: it is not a syringe or magic that put the soup inside a xiao long bao; it is science!
Beside being a delicious dish, the exquisite preparation and flavors of the xiao long bao have also been used as a diplomatic tool. In 2008, British politicians were invited by the Taiwan’s diplomats to make xiao long bao in London. According to the Financial Times, it was an “unusual mix of politics and gastonomy”. It was in fact part of a larger European tour, which arose from suggestions by France’s cultural attache in Taipei that Taiwan’s foreign ministry should bring to Paris, the top xiao long bao makers from the restaurant Din Tai Fung.
I guess that makes the xiao long bao a soup-erb diplomatic move!
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photos: in order – depositphotos/asimojet; Maridav; bratova; Marifa; tiverylucky