Eating Xiao Long Bao is often described as a religious experience. A skilled eater knows they require finesse. First, you must create a small tear in the wrapping to let the steam out, then quickly suck the soup out and bite the rest. The dish is so integral to Chinese cuisine that it’s easy to assume it has always been around, but the Shanghainese soup dumpling is younger than you think.
Its origins are somewhat debatable as everyone wants to lay claim to such a popular dish, but most agree that the story begins around 1875 in the Shanghai suburb of Nanxiang. A man named Huang Mingxian decided he could attract customers to his restaurant by creating a surprising new dumpling.
To create the soupy interior, he added aspic to his pork mince so that, upon steaming, the aspic would liquefy and fill the dumpling with soup from the inside. The thin dough wrapper had to be pleated exactly 14 times, creating a small, circular cinching at the top. To steam, the dumplings were placed in a round bamboo basket. Huang would call the dish Nanxiang da rou mantou, which roughly translates to Nanxiang large meat bun. He figured that the actually petite size of the dish would make it memorable and create loyal fans.
Huang was right.
People began flocking to his restaurant from all over, taken with the novelty. As more and more people tried the dish, the name morphed into a more appropriate one, and thus Xiao (small) Long (basket) Bao (bun) were born.
While created in Shanghai, Xiao Long Bao appeared on the global stage via Taiwan. Cooking oil store Din Tai Fung hired a chef skilled in the art of the small soup dumpling. He whipped up bao after bao, and the Taiwanese people couldn’t get enough. The store cum restaurant expanded to Japan, then America, and finally all over the world, making addicts out of everyone who tried Huang Mingxian’s little dumpling.
The best Xiao Long Bao are still created in Shanghai, right where they began.