A Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

7 09 2009

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.

So thick, you can stand a spoon in it!

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.

Pork dumpling filling

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.

The right soup-to-meat ratio

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.

My first attempt at folding a soup dumpling

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.

Soup dumplings on a bed of lettuce, ready to be steamed.

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.

The eponymous silk purse

Seeing as these are a two-day project, not to mention gluttony-inspiring, the search continues…

Originally published on Croque-Camille.




10 responses

8 09 2009

Oh the suspense! Will you find amazing soup dumplings in Paris? Where are they?? I’ve never had soup dumplings but now I’m having cravings so you’ll have to keep us updated on your search 😉

8 09 2009
hungry dog

This is one of the more impressive undertakings I’ve seen in a food blog! Dumplings in general are tough to do right, but especially the soup dumplings. They are my favorite too. Where did you two go in San Francisco? I think Yank Sing does them very well.

8 09 2009

Looks good. We had some trouble with the wrappers as well. However, I have faith in your abilities.

8 09 2009

I’ve never heard of anything like these before, they sound really good though.

I’m really impressed that you made your own, I would never have even thought to attemp it!

9 09 2009

Hopie – Suspense indeed! As of now, you are fully up to date. Further bulletins as events warrant.

hungry dog – Thanks! We went to Bund Shanghai Retaurant in Chinatown. I’ll pass your recommendation along.

David – That means a lot. Trust me when I tell you they definitely tasted right.

Sam – That’s a not-uncommon reaction, but once you make the acquaintance of the soup dumpling, you will never forget it!

9 09 2009

Awesome. I love soup dumplings and its so neat to see them made.

12 09 2009
Ann Mah

I love, love, love soup dumplings. My husband and I used to eat them once a week when we lived in Beijing (my cholesterol soared, too). If you ever make it to Shanghai, Jia Jia Tang Bao has some of the best — and they’re something like $2.00 for a basket of ten. Also good is Din Tai Feng — I was a regular at the Beijing branch, but they have a location in LA for those not China-bound.

I’ve never seen soup dumplings in Paris, but my guess is they probably don’t exist in any authentic form here. I’ve found most Chinese immigrants here are from Fuzhou. Soup dumpling chefs usually hail from Shanghai, or more likely, Taiwan. Too bad, but just one of Paris’s minor imperfections. If you do find them, let us know!

12 09 2009

husband – They are a labor of love. 🙂

Ann – Thanks for the tips. That’s discouraging that you haven’t found any here, either, but it won’t stop me from looking!

18 09 2009
Ann Mah

Camille, I just found a soup dumpling recipe (including wrapper) in a cookbook I’m featuring on my blog (The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook). Send me an e-mail if you’d like it and I’ll forward it your way. Hey, maybe we should have a xiaolongbao (soup dumpling) cook off one of these days!

16 11 2009
Guest Post – Trotter Gear by Camille Malmquist | Nose To Tail At Home

[…] recently become enamored of pig’s feet, which fortunately, are readily available at French and Chinese butchers here in Paris. Trotter […]

%d bloggers like this: