Kitchn Love Letters

The Wildly Flavorful Freezer Staple That’s Getting Me Through the Winter

published Jan 6, 2023
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

There are few foods cuter than a soup dumpling. Sure, the Chinese are aces at coming up with all kinds of dumpling delights. We’ve got the icons: translucent, plump har gao and open-top, orange-capped shumai. There are the IYKYK ones, like my personal favorite, the puck-shaped, pan-seared gow choi ban that’s hit or miss at dim sum, but glorious when done right. However, adorable Shanghainese xiao long bao — colloquially known as XLB — have become the trendiest little dump to hit the mainstream, and it’s easy to understand why.

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

Not only are they endearing to look at, but they’re also fun to eat. These tidy little bundles of meat wrapped in unblemished white flour dough are special because each one holds a little surprise inside: one big slurp’s worth of pork-based broth. Embedded within the filling of each swirl-topped dumpling is a knob (or nobbins, depending on the maker) of collagen- and gelatin-rich aspic, which is essentially solid broth. When the entire dumpling is steam-cooked, it breaks down in solid form, simmering the meat in the essence of the stock, creating a concentrated flavor bomb that bursts at the bite. 

I’ve attempted making my own XLB only once in my life, at a supervised class hosted by the acclaimed 3 Times restaurant in New York City’s Lower East Side. (I was very not good at it.) This experience only made me even more appreciative of those who are good at it, and the people willing to do this very hard, skill-based work for me. Like the folks at Seattle-based Xiao Chi Jie, XCJ for short.

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

What’s So Great About Xiao Chi Jie Xiao Long Bao?

Second-generation Chinese Americans (and husband and wife team) Jen Liao and Caleb Wang founded this brand back in 2018 with a brick-and-mortar restaurant celebrating the food of their heritage, and have since figured out how to share this famous dish with the rest of the country. Working with their chef Brian Yong to perfect a true-to-Shanghai XLB inspired by trips to the dish’s place of origin, they’ve created a recipe so delicious that 50 dumplings to a bag sound like a meal for one (depending on your rate of consumption).

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

The quality is in the details of these dumplings (and recent Kitchn Essentials winner!). They’re made in the most old-school fashion — by hand and fresh daily. And yet, the ingredients make the recipe stand out even more. The flour used for the outer shell is Mondako flour, a winter and spring wheat blend that makes a supple, smooth dumpling skin that’s also sturdy enough to withstand the extreme treatment of freezing and steaming.

The whole scientific process that went into developing the signature dough is outlined here, for those who are into the chemistry of food (like me!). If you feel up to the challenge, you can even attempt it yourself, as XCJ proudly shares the recipe online. Personally, I’d rather leave it to the pros, because again, I was very bad at this.

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

The dough is only part one of what makes these dumplings so good. The other part is a trio of mighty meaty fillings tucked neatly inside the different dumpling varieties: a freshly ground blend of 80/20 pork, seasoned with fresh ginger and scallions, that forms the meat in the Classic Pork; a mix of pork and Pacific white shrimp in the Shrimp & Pork; and freshly ground chicken in the newer Savory Chicken. The soup across the board is pork- and chicken-based, and richly fragrant with rice wine that gives each a nice, short burst of an acidic pop when it first hits your tongue.

On top of getting the flavors and textures just right, XCJ has also nailed a shipping system that allows home cooks to make (and eat!) essentially unlimited orders of soup dumplings at home. Handmade daily on the West Coast and shipped everywhere on dry ice, the effort fully justifies the cost, IMO. (It’s cheaper than ordering at a local restaurant, which may or may not make these tricky-to-execute little guys fresh on-site.)

Credit: Su-Jit Lin

What’s the Best Way to Use Xiao Chi Jie Xiao Long Bao?

All you have to do is steam these babies for 10 minutes in any kind of flat-bottomed steamer — a traditional bamboo one, like the one on XCJ’s site, the one that came with your rice cooker, or fits in your InstantPot — and presto! Your dumplings are ready to go.

On the whole, these darling little dumps are delightful to eat for a quick snack, easy lunch, or dinner party appetizer. They, at times literally, explode with flavor so rich that it’s surprising how full you can get after eating only a few. Pro tip: Be patient to avoid scalding your tongue!

No matter the kind of meaty filling you choose, the texture is just right — bouncy and firm without being squidgy, soft, or too hard. The wrapper is elastic and not prone to tearing, which is super important, as half the fun is the soup it contains.

All of this, however, is a lot of words for what can be summed up in a few acronyms: XCJ XLB, ILYSM.

Buy: Xiao Chi Jie Classic Pork Soup Dumplings, $39.99 for 50 dumplings

What freezer finds are you stocking up on this winter? Tell us in the comments.