Friday, July 15, 2011

Baozi Banquet: A Guide to Chinese Dumplings

Today has been one of the worst days for me in terms of trying to swim my way through the sea of Chinese red tape... So I decided to stretch my mind back to a few days ago when I was in the blissful nirvana land of having just finished exams, yet not - well - not where I am now...

Hanna and I were staying in a hostel in Shanghai that happened to have an amazing baozi (Chinese steamed dumpling) place just around the corner...

The trick with small food stalls in China? - Don't give it too much thought.

Don't think about the proximity of the public toilet to the kitchen or what exactly the ingredients are or how many times the cooks have (read: have not) washed their hands or knives. All you need to know is that so long as it's fresh - it's good. Make a request from one of the lower levels, and the steam plumes up from the traditional stacked bamboo steamers in such dense fog that for a moment you are completely blinded. What this tells me, is that the heat is so intense that bacteria cannot survive. Buy it fresh and eat it hot and you'll be right as rain.

We had been snacking on these phenomenal creations for a few days, and it was the last day of our time together when we finally decided to embark on a massive "baozi banquet".

The plan was to try one of every single kind of dumpling.

This is the story of how we succeeded in that plan.

Step one was, of course, to buy the dumplings. The lady was honestly not too surprised when we asked for one of every single kind of what she had - which is either a reflection of common tourist practice (unlikely) or a reflection on how strange we looked (I dress unusually with strange sunglasses these days, so this is more likely) or a reflection on how long she had been making dumplings and the idea that she has 'seen it all' in relation to strange dumpling-related etiquette (this is the most likely reason). Nevertheless, we were clasically overcharged and emerged from the sauna-of-a-cornerstore with this:

I feel like this photo almost doesn't do justice to the sheer mass of dumpling that we had for two people. Now that I count them up... we had a total of eleven different kinds of dumpings - each the size of a large fist. I can't believe the bag didn't break.

So the next step was finding somewhere to eat them... Normally small street vendors have little kids' chairs around tiny tables where you're virtually squatting on the ground eating, but this dumpling place was right on a corner and not open at night, so they didn't have a 'dining area'. There were no parks around, so we couldn't take a rug and lie on any grass. Our hostel was right near Nanjing Lu and there were plenty of empty benches along the beautiful commercial strip, but we were getting so many stares from just carrying the bag! People were coming up to us and laughing at our baozi and asking as about it, we couldn't bear the thought of settling down along the main road of Shanghai and actually eating all of them in front of passers-by. Far too much attention.

So, what was the solution? The solution has a lot to do with the time, which was 10:00 am, and so of course we were craving coffee... The solution has a lot to do with how hot it was, and so of course we wanted air-conditioning. The solution has a lot to do with our highly developed senses of irony.

The solution was Starbucks.

I think perhaps a lot of people might find this behaviour distasteful, but anyone who has been to China knows that this stuff happens all the time. Does that make it better? No, I guess not. But I think what made it okay for me, was that it was such a perfect example and reflection of the pure city of juxtapositions that is Shanghai. That whole bag of dumplings, enough to feed four people, cost the same as one cup of coffee. The people working at the dumpling place were trained and knew by heart the methods and recipes for amazing traditional dumplings, and the staff at Starbucks were on their iPhones between using a state-of-the-art coffee machine. It was the perfect scenario at which to say goodbye to Shanghai. We sat down with east and west, with modern and ancient, with rich and poor. We sat down and experienced the most supremely familiar beverage possible, and the most foreign meal possible. We sat down and watched Shanghai moving around us. I though about the time that had passes since the conception of baozi and the conception of coffee. I thought about the business men ordering macchiatos and wondered what their grandparent's sipped and bit. I thought about a lot, to be honest.

What I also thought about, was how damn good those baozi were. As part of the meat-eating week, I had promised myself to really do the dumpling thing, and there I was, doing it. I savoured each flavour with new incredulation, and immediately wondered why more foreigners in China didn't just live off these bundles of deliciousness...

So I thought I might write up a bit of a dumpling guide... Lord knows we took enough photos of the event to justify a post like this!!! It was just a wonderful experience, to really acquaint myself with the total extent of (arguably) the most fundamental food group of Chinese cuisine. It was also great to share it with someone, becuase as we all know, food is meant to be shared! Hanna was inspirational in the way she sank each fresh and mysterious new dumpling into her mouth. It was a brave kind of reckless abandon - we had no idea about what was going to be inside so many of them! It was like eating blindfolded. Needless to say we had a few burnt tongues and a few truly yuck moments... But it all served to enrich the experience.

Now let us begin. In chronological order.

土豆包子 - Tǔdòu Bāozi - Potato Steamed Dumplings, are one of the several kinds of incidentally vegetarian dumplings you can find in China. I say incidentally because they are incredibly tasty and regarded as a dumpling of equal value to their meat counterparts, yet have not been created with vegetarians in mind.

The potato has obviously been peeled raw, and has only been cooked through the process of steaming that the whole dumpling goes through, because each shred retains a wonderful crunchy feeling without that characteristic starchy taste of undercooked potato. The spices used are tasty and a generous amount of chives means that you have that fresh herb feeling as well as the stronger flavours of pepper and spice which really stay on your tongue.

I loved the flavour of the filling itseld, but question it's placement in a bun of steamed bread. Potato traditionally fills the 'carbohydrate' or almost 'base' roll of a dish, and I did feel like this dumpling was missing an extra level of intensity because of it. If I were to make them myself, I think the problem could easily be solved with some onion. That's all it needed. Something to compliment the spices and potatoes without adding an entirely independant flavour which might remove the focus on the potato. The incredibly unique texture could also be retained by cutting the onion in the same way.

Overall though, this dumpling was very tasty. I can reccommend it as the perfect snack, but might leave you wanting more if bought to fill the role of a meal.

This next one is honestly a bit of an anomoly, but holy crap was it a tasty anomoly. I can't seem to find the name for this kind of creation, and I'm not sure if it's technically even a baozi considering it doesn't have any bread. From what I've heard, it's a bit of a Shanghai specialty and has the same kind of glutinous wrapping as a traditional jiaozi. The filling is made of rice in a sweet dark soy sauce, and the starring role belongs to pieces of sweet chewy beef which have been soaked in that same sauce until almost caramalised.

It was honestly one of my favourites. The wrapping was so thin that I didn't feel an overload of basic flavours as I did with the potato baozi, which I thought might be a risk given the main ingredient here is rice. It was the size of about three mouthfulls, and in each you could expect a couple of small chunks of chewy deliciousnes (read: the beef) which got wonderfully stuck in your teeth. The sauce was obviously the genius behind these, and reminded me distinctly of the 熟牛肉 - Hóng shú niúròu - red cooked beef dish. When prepared as a dish, the flavours are strong and the colours dark. The best way to describe it is a very sweet soy sauce. The addition of rice during the cooking process make a lot of sense, though, as it soaks up the sauce and makes every bite a delight. I cannot reccommend these highly enough - if you ever see them promise me you will try them!

These next two can be combined in documentation, but should definitely not be confused. These are known as 面包 - Miànbāo - bread. They are steamed in the same way as the baozi, but are a special kind of soft and fluffy bread. Whats the difference between them? The square shape on the left with sprinkled sesame seeds is slighly sweet, and the beautiful almost artisan scroll shape with chives on the right are slightly savoury. I use to word 'slightly' because this subtle difference only became really clear to me once I ate them next to each other. When taking consecutively alternating bites, the difference in flavour becomes incredibly clear, but eating one bun alone, almost imperceptible.

I have come accustomed these days to buying some savoury mianbao scrolls before buying street food, and soaking up the stirfry juices with the specialty breads instead of rice. It makes the eating experience wonderfully hands on, and the bread is really incredible by itself. When eating these mianbao I can taste the fact that it has been steamed. When concentrating, you can identify the flavour of water despite the texture being entirely solid. It really is incredible. Also, speaking of texture, one of the finest characteristics of these mianbao is how soft they are. Tearing off pieces and popping them into your mouth, they will almost melt and yet become slightly chewy - in the same way you might think of a tender medium-cooked steak. It melts and yet is chewy. Mianbao such as this definitely cannot be underestimated.

This is the last kind of mianbao, and when the other two are available, I'm not really sure why anyone would pick these tough little pyramids. As oppose to the other two, this bread is the same which they use for the filled variety of baozi, and so of course it is much thicker and denser becuase it is designed to hold a lot of juices and fillings within its walls. It is very chewy and very dense, and lacks flavour. I suppose it is the classic 'utility' kind of bread, created for a purpose rather than a flavour.

It is also good for soaking up juices... but certainly not preferrable when either of the other two mianbao's are available.

This next one was pretty funny... Hanna took the first big bite and her face immediately told me to proceed with caution - we were dealing with pickled vegetables. I think they are known as 芽菜包子 - Yá cài bāozi - Pickled Sprouts Dumpling. This translation could be slightly incorrect, and you should also know that these are not the common vegetarian baozi that you will recieve if you ask for 'no meat' or 'vegetarian' options.

These are salty to the point of unbearable. They are that classic 'pickled' flavour and there really isn't much more to be said about them... other than I wouldn't reccommend them. Imagine old seaweed, and you have this flavour in a nutshell. They actually have a lot of seaweed stuff in them. I normally like seaweed flavour (for example in sushi or on dry crackers or snacks) but it is far too pungent in hot baozi mode. If you're a fan of Korean kimchi, or highly salty preserved foods in general, then these might be right up your alley. If you aren't, don't go anywhere near that alley.

Finally, we arrive at some of the more famous and recognisable meat baozi. I'm quite sure that aside from the special Shanghai beef ones I mentioned before, the rest of the meat dumplings we had were pork. Collectively they are known as 猪肉包子 - Zhū ròu bāozi - Pork Dumplings. That is not to say, however, that they all tasted the same.

This dumpling, as you can see, was essentially a meat ball inside of a bread pocket. I am almost tempted to consider it an asian kind of hotdog, because it follows the same principle of encasing an independant portion of meat within an easily holdable and filling base of bread. The meat itself was incredibly tender, and this kind featured tiny slivers of chives and herbs. The flavour was simple and surprisingly fresh, and really allows for an appreciation of the flavour of the meat itself.

The pork in all of the pork dumplings is very medium. I think perhaps it is only very lightly cooked - if at all - before it is steamed, and the result is an incredibly moist and tender texture. Not eating a lot of meat myself, I found this almost too much to bear, but every single meat-eater I have spoken to, without fail, loves this feature.

These were the second kind of pork filled variety we tried, and they tasted completely different! This time, as I'm sure you can guess by that wonderful orange hue, the meat had been soaked and steamed in a chilli sauce. The heat worked well in conjunction with the bread, because no matter how much chilli was in your mouth, the bread made it bearable and enabled you to really appreciate the way the spice worked with the meat. This may sound strange, but I feel like the chilli almost cooked the meat in your mouth. The pork was, in typical style, not-well-done, and yet as oppose to the other pork dumplings, I was able to enjoy that tender and strong meat flavour more here because of the presence of the chilli.

This is also one of those kinds of dumplings with a lot of liquid. As a testament to the structural integrity of that dumpling bread, this dumpling had about a tablespoon of sauce inside, waiting so be released into an unsuspecting mouth, and thus burn it. I for one, bit in naively and had precious dumpling juiced spilled (read: wasted) all down my chin. I think this was my favourite of the pork dumplings. I don't know how it's name would differ from the previous kind of pork dumpling, but if they have them and you ask for a pork dumpling and tell them 辣 - là - spicy, I'm sure they would understand what you're after.

This next kind was super shit. Rubbish. Crap. Don't ever get it. Please. It was the worst baozi I've ever eaten.

Again, here is that problem with having a plain flavour inside of a plain bread bun. The inside of this dumpling consisted almost entirely of glass noodles. There was no real sauce, and only a hint of flavour came from a bit of chilli and more of that strange salty preserved seaweed kind of thing. It was almost dry and the texture was not at all enjoyable. As if they could have made it any worse, the noodles weren't even long and fun, they had been chopped down to inch-long strips. Don't do it!

Now here we arrive at the typical vegetarian steamed dumpling. 蔬菜包子 - Shūcài bāozi - vegetable dumplings, are what I usually eat. Although they are not my favourites, there is definitely something to be said about these humble pockets of goodness. Primarily a kind of spinach, the filling is salty, but not to the same degree as those yuck ones I showed you before. There are chives for flavour and teeny tiny little cubes of tofu for nourishment. The vegetables are moist, but not saucy and leave the bread light and unsoaked.

If I had to pick a work to describe these, it would be humble. You can get great pork baozi or horrible pork baozi, and the quality of the bread will always change, but these vegetable ones are the same no matter where you go. Some say the taste is acquired, and I know myself that I cannot eat them for breakfast, but if you have never tried them before I would encourage you to give them a shot.

And now, for the grand finale of all baozi! The pièce de résistance of the dumpling experience... 豆沙包子 - dòushābāozi - Red bean paste dumplings. These are the only kind of sweet dumplings you can really get, but oh man, how sweet they are. 

To begin with, the texture is something akin to smooth peanut butter. It has that super thick effect of sticking to the roof of your mouth and coating your teeth and tongue in a layer of awesomeness. When it's fresh and hot, the paste is perfect to compliment the bread. The heat keeps the paste thinner and more manageable, and the fresh bread is always soft and almost bouncy in your mouth. When you chew it, the two elements don't really fully combine as they do with the saucy meat buns. In those, the bread absorbs the sauce and a lot of the mouth work is already done for you. These, instead, become a really full and chewy experience which are incredibly satisying to swallow.

The bean paste is sweet, but not too sweet, and allows for appreciation of the actual red bean flavour. I find these baozi are perfect for breakfast when my mouth and I haven't quite woken up yet. Interestingly (and yet unsurprisingly) these also go brilliantly with a cup of tea or coffee.

This is a great example of what my face looks like when I bite into a big fresh dumpling, image courtesy of Hanna.

Phew!!! This took a lot longer than I thought it would and now it's way past my bed time. To sum up, I guess I want to say that dumplings are one of the greatest culinary experiences of China, and that this list is by no means exhaustive. Dumplings, like all Chinese food, are best when shared, and best consumed when fresh. They are also cheap and perfect on the run, an ideal combination for hungry travellers. You can try and make them at home, of course, but good luck! They are deceptively complex creations and the technique takes years to master... Better to just come to China and enjoy 4 of them for 5 kuai!


  1. *drools* this is one of the things i miss about chinese food.. steamed pork buns <3 <3


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