Xiao Long Bao: From Humble Beginnings to National Treasure

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Xiao Long Bao, also known as XLB or soup dumplings, has long been a favorite in China and several Western countries as well. People recognize XLB immediately because of its strong aroma, hot soup filling, and dough wrapping that surrounds the ingredients.

The most recent version of the history of XLB goes back 150 years while the more ancient versions are at least 300 years old. Although it had humble beginnings, XLB is so popular today that the Shanghai government declared it a protected national treasure in 2006. XLB appears on menus in all types of dining establishments from pubs to five-star restaurants.

Discovery of XLB in Chinese Culture

The story of restaurant owner Huang Mingxian discovering XLB has circulated in Chinese culture since approximately 1870. That is the year that Mingxian accidentally created XLB when working in his restaurant. While preparing minced pork, Mingxian added aspic and steamed it. He quickly noticed that the aspic turned to liquid as the dumpling filled up with soup. While that wasn’t what he was aiming for, Mingxian loved his new creation and hundreds of others in his village did too.

An alternative theory on the origins of XLB go all the way back to the mid-1700s when Emperor Qianlong tasted soup dumplings for the first time while traveling through Jiangsu. Like Huang Mingxian more than a century later, Emperor Qianlong loved XLB and told everyone he knew about it. His endorsement of soup dumplings made them instantly popular in Jiangsu and other Chinese provinces.

How the Demand for XLB Grew Even More in the 20th Century

In 1958, the owners of a steamed dumpling restaurant in Taipei hired an Eastern Chinese chef who could prepare XLB without consulting a recipe. Eventually that chef trained several apprentices on how to master the preparation of XLB. The apprentices observed the chef for weeks before attempting to make XLB on their own under his direct supervision. Din Tai Fung, the Taipei restaurant, soon had many expert chefs on its staff to prepare soup dumplings.

Focusing primarily on XLB was such a smart business decision by the managers of Din Tai Fung that the restaurant soon became a worldwide chain. It has locations all over the world today, including in large international cities like London, Los Angeles, and Singapore.

XLB Ingredients and Tips for Eating a Dumpling Correctly

Pork is the most typical meat ingredient used for the inside contents of soup dumplings. Some chefs prefer to substitute pork with seafood such as crab or prawn or other meats. Preparing XLB involves adding aspic or gelatin cubes to thin sheets of dough and balls of filling. The chef creates 18 pleats in each sheet of dough and twists the top to make the topknot people easily recognize. After steaming the buns, a server presents them to diners in a wicker steamed basket.

Since XLB comes in small round balls, diners should pick them up with a spoon and then use chopsticks to eat them. To prevent burning the roof of their mouth, they should poke a small hole into the dough ball and suck the soup broth out of it first. The remaining dough and meat are easy to chew once they’re no longer steaming hot.