Can I have my soup inside the dumpling today,” I jokingly ask. “Certainly Ma’am, give me eight minutes.”
A Shanghainese would be quite offended if you refer to them as mere dumplings. But that’s exactly what they looked like to my inexperienced eyes. I had eaten a popular version called “Momos” at Tibetan eateries in Delhi and Kolkata. And that’s what I was expecting to eat at popular Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay.
Given the crowds of people waiting at this Michelin-starred specialist restaurant (featured in New York Times’s top-10 gourmet restaurants in the world), I was surprised to be shown to my table in just 10 minutes. The average waiting time used to be several hours and had been cut down dramatically with new branches, assembly-line production and electronic table allocation — a quintessential China-boom-type expansion! I readied myself for a traditional Xiaolongbao (literally, ‘little basket bun’) meal. Within 10 minutes, the piping hot baos arrived — three bamboo baskets with six bite-sized steamed baos each. I used my chopsticks to carefully pick one at a time, dab them in little bowls of soy-and-vinegar sauce, place them on my soup spoon and add a few strands of ginger slivers on them. This whole exercise required some concentration because this was no simple dumpling. The paper-thin translucent steamed dumplings not only had a solid meat filling, but also hot soup in them, making them bottom-heavy and delicate.
With the dressed Xiaolongbao laden spoons in my left hand, and chopsticks in the right, I embarked on the skill-intensive process of eating. There is a trick to avoid burning the mouth with the hot soup: first puncture the bao with a chopstick to let steam out, then slowly suck out some of the hot soup before eating the rest of the bao. Each bao was a delicacy in itself. I had never eaten something with such variety of textures and distinct flavours in such little bite sizes. And yet, all of it harmonised perfectly. After making my way through the pork, minced crab and pork-crab-and-roe Xiaolongbaos, I finally paused to sip the traditional green-tea and look around me.
The theatre kitchen section was fascinating — from the careful weighing of each dough ball so the skin is almost paper thin, the manual 18-folds in each bao, to the eight-minute long steamingprocess in bamboo baskets. The trick of holding the soup inside each bao was to fill it with not just meat but also a solid gelatine mixture, which would disintegrate into soup when steamed.
Though Xiaolongbaos are now available across most of Asia and the US, their origin can be traced to the suburbs of Shanghai where they were sold by street vendors. This humble beginning probably explains why something so meticulously prepared cost me only about Rs 250 for a basket of six. I dedicated much of my remaining time in Hong Kong to discovering the extended Xiaolongbaos family across different eateries, my one other favourite being a vegetarian variety with edible flowers and flower-soup!
(Pranjul Bhandari is an economist and a freelance researcher)
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