Earlier this year, the boyfriend and I had an amazing time in Hong Kong. That’s a whole separate post, and one where I get over-excited about architecture before complaining about the air quality and the financial inequality.
But the food was amazing.
Particularly amazing were the xiaolong bao we had at Din Tai Fung. If you’ve not had xiaolong bao before (and I hadn’t), they’re these little steamed dumplings, usually filled with minced meat, various aromatics, and – crucially, deliciously – soup.
I know, right? Soup. Turns out the answer is “gelatine”, but we’ll get to that.
Recalling how much we’d enjoyed them, and being non-trivially wonderful, as a Christmas gift, Kit got us both a class learning to make them. It was an oddly serene way to spend a January morning, and thoroughly enjoyable
(Din Tai Fung is now trading in the UK, incidentally. Which is probably cheaper than the airfare, so long as you don’t try to get there by train.)
The class was presented by Janncy, and on this occasion we were her only two students. Classes are usually for up to six people, although for some she’ll do more, teaching from the kitchen of her arrestingly lovely apartment.
Glass-walled, and on the 12th floor of the kind of development near King’s Cross that you’d associate more with a boutique legal firm than human habitation, Janncy had damn-close to my perfect fantasy kitchen in damn-close to my perfect fantasy home. It’s airy, light, and just the right size for small group teaching, which she does in a way that feels more like having brunch with an old friend than a lecture from a chef. The atmosphere is intimate, encouraging, and quietly cheerful. There’s a love of food that comes through clearly.
We start with a tiny bit of theory and background, but it’s hands-on more or less right away, making the dumpling dough.
This is a nice simple 2:1 by weight mix of flour to water, a little salt, and some kneading until it’s pliant and silky. Rest well, and prepare fillings.
We were using a mix of pork with sesame and ginger, a little soy in the marinade. It was pre-prepared for us, to save on time, as was the broth. That, we were told, can be a few hours cooking, not least as the bao would originally be filled with a slowly-made rich broth full of rendered natural gelatine.
This is how you fill a dumpling with a liquid – not a phase of matter commonly associated with being easy to pick up by hand and shove into a lump of bread.
Traditionally, gelatine would render slowly out of the bones and skin in a rich stock base, with many cooks using pig skin and chicken feet. These days, it’s easier to make a broth (with bones if you have them to hand), and add a couple of leaves of gelatine to set the soup. Chilled and set to a jelly, it can then be worked through the filling to make something that, I’m not going to lie, looks a little like Whiskas went hipster.
That’s it for the easy part. Next, we’re onto rolling dough, filling, and shaping into these petite little swirls.
I was worried about that part. Pastry I can just about do, but I’m not good with delicate. Presentation ain’t my home turf.
Fifteen dumplings is plenty of practice, however, and Janncy was encouraging and patient. She showed us step by step through the first few, then came round helping with technique and finish, interspersed with casually turning out her own batch of picture-perfect dumplings.
The trick, inasmuch as I can tell is all in the grip. Making a kind of deep pocket with your fingers to guide the shape, and then pinching and turning to create the furls. Eighteen of them, apparently, is the ideal, although I don’t think I ever got past fifteen, and nowhere near as even as hers. It’s the kind of methodical, focused practice that takes you out of yourself, and standing there in that space, quiet above the city, it had a kind of relaxing flow to it.
Once they’re assembled, you can either freeze them for later, or steam them right away. Ten minutes over gently simmering water sees them done through, and the soup hot and liquid. Fresh cooked they kind of sag precariously as you pick them up with the chopsticks, bursting on the bite. It’s a moment of textures and aromatics, and they’re great.
The class ends with cooking what you’ve made, paired with a few light side dishes. In this case a cold chicken and cucumber salad with a sesame sauce, a dish of edamame beans, and wood ear mushrooms in chili oil with ginger. That last one was pretty epic. One of those things I’m only just learning about Chinese food where a few simple flavours come together (often with a fun texture) to be something massively more succulent and complex than I’d initially imagine. (There are a couple of things a bit like it in Every Grain of Rice).
The class is also, and I cannot stress this enough, an absolute fucking bargain.
Seriously. The whole thing was £38, which gets you a shade over three hours of tuition, a light lunch based around the dumplings you make, and plenty to take away. I’d have forked over double and walked away smiling.
I’ll totally be trying these at home. I mean, not often, because it’s still a few hours work to make enough to feed a small group, but it’s satisfying work, and they’re a tasty bit of kitchen theatre.