Back in the States, Nick and I have some friends from New York who turned us on to the slurpy, mouth-burning delicacy that is xiao long bao. For the uninitiated, xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, are a specialty of Shanghai. Intricately folded dumpling wrappers enclose a bit of seasoned meat and a gush of rich soup. They’re supposed to be an appetizer, but the four of us would usually get two or three orders apiece and call it dinner. Every other blog post I’ve read about soup dumplings claims that they’re something you just have to try at least once in your life. I’m not going to tell you that, because if a steamed dumpling filled with a mouthful of meaty broth, served with vinegar, ginger, and chili oil doesn’t sound good to you, who am I to try and change your mind? Just leaves more for me.
We visited said friends in June in their new hometown, San Francisco. They had done some research and had a list of soup dumpling places to try, a quest in which Nick and I were more than willing to participate. The ones we got at a restaurant were only okay, but the ones we bought freshly made to cook at home were outstanding. More importantly, the whole adventure reminded Nick and I how much we love soup dumplings, and we vowed to redouble our efforts to find a good source in Paris once we returned home.
Browsing the aisles at my favorite Asian supermarket, Paris Store, I glanced into the frozen dumpling case and what did I see? Xiao long bao, or “raviolis de Shanghai” (ravioli being the term the French have adopted to describe anything wrapped in dough). The frosty dumplings in the bag looked like about the right shape, so I bought them, and a bamboo steamer that miraculously fit perfectly over my saucepan. Sadly, the dumplings were not what we were looking for. The filling is mostly meat, with just a hint of juiciness as a nod to the soup that’s supposed to be there. Good, but not the soup dumplings we crave.
Walking down the rue de Belleville one night, Nick and I spotted a little hole-in-the-wall with a sign that said “Restaurant Raviolis.” Needless to say, we went there for dinner at the first opportunity. The menu consists of about a dozen types of soup and a dozen types of dumpling. We ordered three kinds of dumplings (shrimp, chicken, and pork), and two bowls of soup (duck for me, pork rib for Nick). The food was delivered quickly, and smelled great. But none of the dumplings looked like they contained any soup. We asked the waitress if they made xiao long bao, explaining that we were looking for a dumpling with soup inside, and she said she had never heard of such a thing. Disappointed, we turned to our soups, which brightened our spirits considerably. The broth was extremely flavorful, and the rustic-looking noodles had a great texture. It was then that an older woman came out of the back and began rolling dough on a long table. We watched, slurping our soup greedily, as she hand rolled and cut a new batch of noodles. Despite the place’s distinct lack of décor or atmosphere, we will definitely be going back for more of those handmade noodles.
But the soup dumpling jones was getting stronger.
We finally broke down and decided to make our own. We purchased ground pork from our local Chinese butcher, and got a pig foot and a pig ear from the French butcher across the street. At Paris Store we found ridiculously cheap star anise and szechuan peppercorns to perfume the broth, as well as some very authentic-looking cinnamon bark and a big bunch of Thai chives (I don’t know if that’s what they’re called, but they come from Thailand and they taste like chives, but the stalks are longer and sturdier than your typical chive). Oh! And some Chinese soup spoons, too, for 60 cents each. I am a firm believer in using the right tool for the job.
I started by making a strong stock with the pig ear and foot, which we had the butcher cut into smaller pieces for us – what would be a messy job for us at home with the cleaver is a snap for him with his band saw. The cool thing about making stock with cartilaginous bits like these is that it only takes a couple of hours to get a nice, gelatinous stock. (See that first picture? That’s the chilled stock, holding up a spoon.) The next day, I mixed the ground pork with some chopped onion, fresh ginger, and the “Thai chives.” When Nick came home from work, we began building the dumplings, using wonton wrappers. They were a bit too thin, it turned out, to hold in all the soupy goodness, and we tragically lost the soup out of about half of the lovingly, if amateurishly, made dumplings.
But since it trickled down into the pot below, I was able to save it and make soup dumpling soup later in the week, with noodles and meatballs made from the leftover dumpling filling. The dumplings that made it (and even the ones that didn’t) were still scrumptious. Nick and I managed to eat an entire package of wonton wrapper’s worth of dumplings – didn’t count, don’t want to know – in one sitting.
Seeing as these are a two-day project, not to mention gluttony-inspiring, the search continues…
Originally published on Croque-Camille.