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XIAO LONG BAO - Shanghai Soup Buns

Helen at Dumpling Cafe in downtown Boston
Dumpling Cafe's Xiao Long Bao
Last week I had a great lunch of steamed "Xiao Long Bao," sometimes called soup buns or dumplings because each steamed bun is filled with ground pork and a wonderful tasty soup. The buns are traditionally a yeast dough skin wrapped around a filling of ground pork or a ground pork and crabmeat mixture and steamed. The question is, "How do they get the soup into the buns?" Well, the answer is the filling is mixed with small diced aspic. So, when the buns are steamed, the aspic melts and creates this incredible soup. It's very clever.

I've noticed that restaurants call these steamed buns by different things - Steamed Minced Pork Buns, Yangchow Steamed Buns, Small Steamed Buns, Shanghai Buns... To be sure you're getting the right thing it might be better to ask for them using the Chinese. "Xiao", means "small" and is pronounced "show", as in shower. "Long" refers to the bamboo steamer and is pronounced "long" as in room, "Bao" means bun and sounds like "ow" in about.

Eating Xiao Long Bao the proper way
Now, there's also a particular way to eat these bao so that the soup doesn't squirt all over you and your neighbor or spill on to the table. First, with chopsticks, gently pick up the bao by the top where the dough is thickest. Try not to poke a hole in the dough or the soup will leak out. Dip the bao in the soy ginger dipping sauce always provided with xiao long bao. Then, with a Chinese soup spoon in your other hand and support and cradle the bao. The bao skin is very delicate and jiggly because of the soup inside, so the spoon really helps stabilize things. Take a tiny bite of the bao along the side and immediately suck in the soup. Be careful, because the soup may be hot. After you enjoy the soup, eat the rest of the bao in one or two bites. It may take a little practice at first, but you'll get the hang of it.

The xiao long bao I had on Friday was at a new restaurant in Boston called Dumpling Cafe ( 695 Washington Street, Boston. Tel: 617-338-8858) It's open everyday from 11:00 am until 2:00 am. Great for late night snacking. There I am standing in front of the restaurant.

It's obviously very popular with the lunch crowd because by noon the place was packed with a waiting line. On a scale of 1 - 10 ( 10 being perfection), I would give it an 8. The bao were a little larger than the Shanghai style and I think the menu referred to them as Taiwan style. See how they fill the bamboo steamer and overlap over the sides of the spoon? These were the tastiest and soupiest bao I've ever had in Boston. You get 6 large bao per bamboo steamer for $5.95 and if they're filled with pork and crab, the price for 6 is $6.50. By the way, this restaurant calls xiao long bao "Mini Steamed Buns." See what I mean about the nomenclature?

For fabulous Shanghai style xiao long bao there is a fantastic chain of Shanghai dim sum restaurants called Din Tai Fung,with shops in Asia, Canada and the West Coast of the USA. Unfortunately they haven't come to the East Coast yet. Go to their web site ( and you'll see a nice close up picture of their specialty - Shanghai xiao long bao. The xiao long bao at Ding Tai Fung are more like the ones I enjoyed in China when I first went with my mother and brother in 1972. So far I've been to about 4 different Ding Tai Fung restaurants ( Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai and Toronto) and they all have wide open kitchens ( behind huge panes of glass) where the xiao long bao are continually being handmade. Behind the chefs are towers of bamboo steamers waiting to be filled and steamed. The xiao long bao at each location were all delicious!

Do I have a recipe for xiao long bao? Sorry to disappoint, but no, because I don't make them at home. In fact, I don't know anyone who makes them at home. My mother never did. It's a specialty that's complicated and time-consuming to make. We all go out to have them. I do have other dim sum recipes that are relatively easy to make -- but that will have to be another time.

So, check out the Dumpling Cafe when you're in Boston and investigate Ding Tai Fung if you're lucky enough to have one near you. Both are well worth the effort to find.

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Like so many of us, Helen Chen learned to cook at her mother's side. But few of us had a mother like Joyce Chen. Helen grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her mother prepared the authentic dishes of her native Shanghai and Beijing with the sort of regularity the rest of us came to expect of macaroni and cheese or meatloaf.

"I remember when I was little, watching my mother prepare meals for family and friends. I once wrote a list of my favorite Chinese dishes," Helen recalls, "I came up with 150 recipes. I do not have one or two favorites. All the dishes on the list are traditional and all are ones that I learned from my mother. That is what I love most about Chinese food: its variety. Taste, texture and color all come into play, as does personality and culture. I think this is what cooking is all about."

Soft spoken and intensely intelligent, Helen Chen was born in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. with her family while still a baby. Helen grew up, as she describes it, in a traditional Chinese-American household. "When I was young I wanted to be totally American," she remembers. "It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized how lucky I was to have two cultures."

Today, Helen Chen is a widely acknowledged expert in Chinese cooking. Besides her role as an educator and cookbook author, she also is a corporate spokesperson and business consultant to the house wares industry. In 2007 she created and developed a new line of Asian kitchenware under the brand name Helen’s Asian Kitchen®, expressly for Harold Import Company in New Jersey.

Having been born in China and raised and educated in the United States, Helen brings the best of both worlds to her approach to the art of Chinese cuisine. She understands the needs of the American cook as only a native can, yet she is intimately knowledgeable in the culinary practices and philosophy of China.

In her active role as a teacher and educator, Helen teaches Chinese cuisine at Boston University; and, through the Anderson Foundation’s enrichment program ‘Cooking Up Culture’ she teaches Boston area school children from grades 1-12 about Chinese cuisine and culture. She also teaches Asian cuisine in numerous cooking schools across the country.

Helen has lectured to various professional and culinary organizations such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Boston University Seminars in the Arts and Culinary Arts, Oldways Preservations and Exchange Trust, Small Business Development Center, The Culinary Historians of Boston, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the Culinary Guild of New England. In addition, she conducts culinary tours of Boston’s Chinatown and is a frequent guest chef at cooking schools around the U.S.

Helen is the author of Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (Hearst Books, 1994), Peking Cuisine (Orion Books,1997) and Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Chinese Stir-Fries (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). A second book in the Helen’s Asian Kitchen series, Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Asian Noodles is scheduled for publication in January, 2010.