Made with love and exactitude, xiao long bao – sublime parcels of dough containing a pork morsel and soupy surrounds – are among the most revered items of eastern Chinese cuisine. We searched Auckland for the best local examples, and uncovered some gems.
These deliciously savoury delights originated in China’s Jiangnan province, home to Shanghai and Wuxi, where they have long been revered. My own fascination with them started in Singapore, where the famous Din Tai Fung chain of restaurants has long given xiao long bao prominence on their menus. The very first Din Tai Fung opened in Taipei, Taiwan, but it quickly became so popular that the chain spread to 11 different countries; the two in Hong Kong have each been awarded a Michelin star in recent years.
Back in Singapore, we used to queue up at their flagship restaurant at Paragon mall on Orchard Road, watching and learning while we waited. Dressed in white, caps, and wearing masks, the chefs worked not just at great speed making xiao long bao, but with trained precision. Each portion of dough, which must be between 4.8g-5.2g, is rolled out into paper-thin sheets. After being filled and pleated, the dumplings are steamed for exactly 4.5 minutes – an underdone bao will look shrivelled, while an oversteamed one is at risk of bursting. Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao are usually more delicate than those found elsewhere, and their popularity justifies their claim to be one of the most perfect single bites (or two) of Chinese food. If you’re lucky enough to eat at a Din Tai Fung restaurant, you can choose from a range of fillings, including chilli crab, vegetable and pork, and angled gourd and shrimp. At certain premium outlets, truffle oil-flavoured xiao long bao are on offer, but at a price.
To watch xiao long bao being made is a lesson in skill and artistry. Each one must have 18 distinct pleats (not least because pedants like me actually count them). A perfect xiao long bao features a tiny pinch on top where all the folds come together to seal the dumpling.
When they arrive at your table, steaming hot, it’s not just a matter of cramming them into your mouth. There is definitely a right way to eat them, and this is detailed in the printed guide that sits on every table in a Din Tai Fung restaurant. First, you dip the bao in a mix of Chinese red vinegar and light soy, then you place it in a porcelain spoon and scatter a little julienned fresh ginger on top. As you gently bite into the bao, it will burst and the juices will flow out to be sipped (or slurped). Heavenly!
Decent xiao long bao are difficult to find in Auckland. I suspect that’s because standard dumplings are easier and less time-consuming to make. However, if you do see xiao long bao on the menu, be aware that many eateries (particularly the smaller ones) use frozen dumplings that are never going to taste as good as those that have been freshly made, and may be full of artificial flavour enhancers. Watch for inferior pleating, too, as this could indicate a chewy skin. Then there is the filling, which simply must be made from a good cut of pork (Din Tai Fung only uses meat from the legs). And remember that xiao long bao must be eaten as soon as they land on the table – this is one instance when Instagrammers should butt out.
It puzzles me why some restaurants make a big effort to serve good quality xiao long bao, but offer them with inferior black vinegar, the tartness of which kills the delicate flavour of the bao. Also disappointing: very few eateries bother with julienned ginger, an oversight that diminishes the taste of the dumpling (some will provide it if you ask for it).
Despite all this, there are some excellent xiao long bao in Auckland. Here’s where you’ll find some of the best.
At Jolin Shanghai (248 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden), owner Lei ‘Kelvin’ Zhang was happy to demonstrate how he makes xiao long bao, starting with creating the dough from flour and water. The filling comprises a gelatinous extract from pork skin and collagen from the bones that liquefies into a soupy, flavoursome juice after the dumplings have been steamed for the requisite amount of time. Although the process of making them is time-consuming, Kelvin adheres to the traditional tenets, right down to the number of pleats – never more and never less than 18 ($9 for eight).
Some of the best xiao long bao can be had at the very busy Yi Pin Xiang restaurant (113 Meadowland Drv, Somerville). Here, all the chefs hail from Shanghai and a serving of 10 bao comes beautifully pleated and divided between two steamers. These well-crafted bao are filled with quality cuts of pork with no artificial enhancers ($9.50 for 10).
There are several other restaurants on this side of town that offer xiao long bao, including Lucky Seafood Restaurant (just around the corner from Yi Pin Xiang at Unit A8, 125 Meadowland Drv, Somerville); Star Seafood, a two-level restaurant at The Hub, Botany Town Centre (451 Ti Rakau Drv, Botany – be prepared to queue at the weekends); and the Imperial Palace in Mount Wellington (519 Ellerslie-Panmure Highway). The Royal Dumpling and Noodle (776 Manukau Rd, Royal Oak) also has decent xiao long bao on its all-day yum cha menu.
Over at the motorway end of Sandringham, Tianze Dumpling House (695 Sandringham Rd) – which made the Top 10 in Metro’s Cheap Eats 2017 – has 17 types of dumplings on offer. If you want really fresh xiao long bao, call the day before to place your order. Chef Levi Sun’s bao are bigger than most (15g of dough to 25g meat filling), but the fillings, in their well-made pleated casings, are very good ($12 for eight).
Recently opened in Kingsland, smart asian fusion restaurant Mix (487 New North Rd) serve their pork and ginger xiao long bao with red vinegar and julienned ginger (four for $6).
In Newmarket, the hip Tao Restaurant (61 Davis Cres) offers xiao long bao tapas style – you get four delectable dumplings with the added bonus of red and black vinegars, light soy and chilli oil, just as the experts at Din Tai Fung would have it (four for $6).
White & Wong’s (149 Quay St, Viaduct Harbour) is a fusion restaurant that makes a good xiao long bao. The filling is chicken and lemongrass, encased in a well-pleated bao. It’s served with criss-crossed julienned ginger (four for $10).
Over on the North Shore, some of Auckland’s best xiao long bao are at Takapuna’s Artwok Eatery & Bar (152 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna). Made by pastry chef Jing Wang, aka Mrs Wang, from Shandong, these are quite substantial, meaning there’s all the more to eat and slurp (in very smart surroundings). The dipping sauce on offer is a mild Chinese black vinegar with julienned ginger (4 for $14).
Another bao to try
Get your sheng jian bao fix
Sheng jian bao share the same kind of filling and the same number of pleats as xiao long bao, but there are several crucial differences. The flour has yeast and baking soda added, and warm water is used to make the dough. As for the filling, 25g of meat goes into each dumpling. They are cooked differently too, in that the chef will wet the bottom of each bao, then dip them into a tray of sesame seeds before transferring them to a hot oiled pan to which a little water has been added to prevent the bases from burning. The pan is then covered and after 10 minutes, the bao will be cooked to perfection, the bases beautifully browned with the sesame seeds. Like xiao long bao, they are best eaten with Chinese vinegar. The sheng jian bao, pictured left, were made by chef Lei ‘Kelvin’ Zhang at Jolin Shanghai Restaurant.