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How to make the perfect Chinese dumpling

Discover the secret behind the perfect shao-long bao dumpling.

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Here I am, dusty with flour, awkwardly holding the dumpling wrapper  I've just rolled flat with a mini wooden rolling pin. I'm ensconced in a tiny  kitchen with Sammy Shi, a dumpling master of 15 years, who learnt his craft in Shanghai.

Thumb here, and here – Shi wordlessly shows me how the crimped frill of the pot-sticker  needs to cup neatly into my palm.

I've mucked it up – not enough pork mince filling in the centre, too much at the side, bits of meat poking out the edges. As for ''making it beautiful'', my dumpling is lumpy and small, with the pleat all wonky.

Head chef Jian Qin Chen and manager Patrick Liu at HuTong restaurant.
Head chef Jian Qin Chen and manager Patrick Liu at HuTong restaurant. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

It helps to explain why becoming a dumpling master takes a minimum of 15 years and is considered a great honour. Shi says it's much more than a process. ''It's like kung fu – there are no short cuts. The steps are just as important, and it's about your soul.''

Jian Qin Chen, head chef at Melbourne's HuTong, which serves an average of 800 dumplings a day, is a dumpling master of 30 years' experience. He comes from Wuxi, a city renowned for its xiao long bao and dumplings, and estimates that among its 6 million-odd residents there are only about five true dumpling masters.

''It's easy to tell everyone the measurements or to learn it from a book, but the taste and skill come from experience,'' Chen says. ''It's a balance of everything.''

Sammy Shi, cutting the dumpling dough at Shanghai Street.
Sammy Shi, cutting the dumpling dough at Shanghai Street. Photo: Simon Schluter

Back at Shanghai Street, I watch Shi pour a slosh of oil into a frying pan, enough to liberally cover its base. In go the mini pork buns until the bottoms start to brown and colour, then a scoop of boiling water is added and the lid plonked on top, so the dumplings are fried and steamed all at once.

Over at the giant wok, filled with  bubbling hot water, I'm boiling up some more pork dumplings, gently pushing them around with an upturned ladle so they don't stick on the bottom. When they're ready, they float.

But the pouchy, pleated xiao long bao are the real heroes of the dumpling world, and the biggest sellers. They are the hardest and most technically difficult to make, and the signature dish at many dumpling restaurants.

Getting ready to roll the dough at Shanghai Street.
Getting ready to roll the dough at Shanghai Street. Photo: Simon Schluter

Traditionally, the filling is pork mince, laced with sesame oil and hot, soupy juice that squirts out when you bite.
Hands up who thinks this liquid is a stock. It isn't. Boiling pig skin until it turns into a clear jelly is the key to making the signature broth of the xiao long bao – it's not a soup that's sealed in the dumpling before cooking.

At HuTong, they take the whole pig skin, scrape off the fat and hair, then simmer it in a big stockpot for six to eight hours until the gelatin dissolves and turns sticky – that's when you know it's ready. The gelatin is then frozen solid, cut into cubes  and mixed with the minced pork to make the filling. Gelatin melts to a liquid when heated, and it's this that squirts from a dumpling when you bite into it. Note that there is no fat in this juice – any oiliness comes from the meat or the sesame oil. David Loh, from Food Republik in Box Hill, Victoria, says their xiao long bao are Taiwanese-style, which means an ultra-thin, almost translucent skin with ''a minimum of 18 folds'' and a smaller size than the typical Chinese dumplings.

''We weigh every five or six dumplings,'' Loh says, and mostly they are ''plus or minus one gram'' of the desired 25-gram weight. Loh is looking to source Kurobuta pigs (black Berkshire ones raised using Japanese nutrition and practice) for the pork xiao long bao, as he prefers the more refined flavour.

Slurp out the soup first in the xiao long bao at HuTong.
Slurp out the soup first in the xiao long bao at HuTong. Photo: Bonnie Savage

A final tip: to eat xiao long bao, hold the dumpling on your spoon, nibble off the pleated top and slurp the juicy broth. Only then may you want to add some black vinegar with sliced ginger, but many eat xiao long bao unadorned to savour the true flavour.

What did I learn? That making dumplings is much harder than it looks.

Try it at home

Sammy Shi's chicken and prawn dumplings