Ivy stood over my shoulder and watched as I tired to fold the seams of dough with slow care.
“Those nails. They make holding the dough difficult. They are pretty, but not good for folding dumplings.”
She was right. I was struggling to make my dumpling look as seamless and perfect as hers. But, I felt better watching my husband who was doing worse than I was. My dumplings needed makeup, his needed plastic surgery.
We were hard at work in Ivy Chen’s kitchen in Taipei. Our mission: to recreate Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao.
One of Taiwan’s most famous exports is Din Tai Fung. The restaurant specializes in dumplings and noodles. But, their pièce de résistance is their xiaolongbao, a steamed dumpling with meat and a soup broth inside. Unlike your usual flash-frozen fare, the dumplings are made fresh. That means the insides are juicy, not dry and the dough is chewy, not rubbery.
People travel for miles, across city and country borders, to eat at this place. At my local outpost the wait for a table is never less than 45 minutes, and can exceed 90 minutes. So what is the secret??? We came to Ivy to find out.
Ivy spent years experimenting and researching how to make dumplings Din Tai Fung-style. We headed to her cozy apartment in the Shilin District to get her guidance.
The first step in making the dumplings is getting the broth right. This part can take an entire day. So Ivy prepared it in advance and explained the key ingredient: pork skin. Pork is important for two reasons, first flavor, and second collagen.
To get the soup inside the dumpling you need it to be solid first. The collagen in the skin will turn the broth into a gelatin when it’s cold. Then, when the dumpling is heated the broth will melt and you get soup in your dumpling. It’s a very similar process to making molten lava cake.
The pork skin is combined with chicken bones, spices, rice wine and water. After these cook down, the broth cools and turns to a jelly.
According to Ivy, no matter which Din Tai Fung dumpling you choose the broth includes pork skin. It provides a meaty, umami flavor and has strong enough proteins to keep the soup solid until it hits the steam.
Din Tai Fung has a few filling options: shrimp, pork, crab, chicken and squash. But the classic is pork, so we went with that.
We mixed ground pork with spices and the broth before cooling it down into a jelly. Less than an hour later we were ready to start stuffing our dumplings.
As we cooked, we learned how Ivy came to being a cooking instructor. It started with her desire to practice English. She offered Mandarin classes to meet expats, but her students became more interested in food than language. So she started cooking classes. Now Ivy teaches chefs and dignitaries from all around the world. And, sometimes makes time for normal folks like us.
Next, is the cold water dough. It’s a simple combination of flour, water and salt. This recipe gets you everything from dumpling skins to noodles and wonton wrappers.
Making the dough was the easy part. It’s filling that takes skill. At Din Tai Fung there’s a window display where you can watch the staff roll, stuff and seal each dumpling. The process is like watching an automobile assembly line. They operate with speed and precision. That was the complete opposite of us.
A soup dumpling is tricky because during the cooking process the filling will expand. That means you need room for it to grow and a sturdy base to hold the weight of the soup. Seepage is the last thing you want from your soup dumplings!
You roll the dough out into a circle, but to get the perfect balance, the center needs to be thicker than the sides. This involves rolling and twisting the dough, and releasing your pressure as you roll. It’s 10x harder than patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
After rolling, we moved on to filling and sealing the dumplings. Folding beautiful meaty purses of dough is a job that requires a deft hand. That skill only comes with practice…that I didn’t have. I’d show Ivy my attempt and she’d smile at my imperfect creation. But by dumpling six mine looked pretty darn good!
The moment of truth though was eating our xiaolongbao. Would they be better than Din Tai Fung’s?
Of course not!!! Are you kidding? The flavor was definitely on par with the real thing, but our wrapping skills were not. That meant there was some seepage. But our hard work made them taste so much better. And after spending a day in the kitchen, I walked away with new appreciation for these balls of goodness.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.