The History of Xiaolongbao, or Soup Dumplings

Alkira Reinfrank and Bernice Chan wrote . . . . . . . . .

With nimble fingers, dim sum chef Leung Kwok-wa places a freshly rolled dumpling wrapper in his palm, scoops a spoonful of pork filling into the centre and – as if by magic – encases the bulging filling by pinching, pleating and rotating the dough at lightning speed.

Within seconds, the chef, from Hong Kong’s Dim Sum Library, holds in his hand a perfect xiaolongbao, also known as a soup dumpling in the West.

Xiaolongbao are delicate parcels served piping hot in a small bamboo steamer. Within a wheat flour wrapper is a portion of fatty minced pork that, when steamed, releases a fragrant soup that pools within the dumpling, ready to explode in the mouth when bitten into.

These delicious dumplings – which have been known to scald the mouths of many soup dumpling newbies – are originally from the Jiangnan region of eastern China, but have found global fame over the past two decades thanks to restaurant chain Din Tai Fung.

While hungry diners can easily demolish a basket full of these dainty delights, learning to make them is another story.

Even though we watch Leung wrap them with intent, we struggle to follow. Our attempts end up looking like sad, flattened mini mooncakes with a swirl on top, instead of the proud, golf-ball-sized dumplings with 23 pleats that the master creates.

Leung, originally from Zhongshan in southern China, migrated to Hong Kong when he was a child. As a teenager, he followed his older brother and father into the restaurant business.

“For a 17-year-old to wake up at 3 am is very difficult, and in the winter I found it especially hard,” he recalls, though in time he grew to enjoy the craft. Now, he gets to flex his creativity in coming up with interesting varieties of steamed dumplings.

“To make the perfect xiaolongbao, you need the wrapper to be thin enough, and have enough soup so that you can taste a spoonful of it in your mouth. You should be able to pick up the top of the dumping with your chopsticks and swing it back and forth without breaking it,” Leung explains.

Often served with a saucer of vinegar and shreds of ginger, xiaolongbao are best known as a Shanghainese snack. However, many actually point to a town on the fringes of Shanghai as the birthplace of the modern soup dumpling.

“In Shanghai, they say that xiaolongbao originated in a country town on the outskirts of Shanghai called Nanxiang, around the Guyi Gardens,” says cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, who’s been researching Chinese cuisine for 25 years.

“Around the edge of this classical Chinese garden, there have been, for a couple of centuries, a lot of little snack shops. It was a sort of pleasure ground for people and these snack shops all specialise in xiaolongbao.”

It is not known exactly who invented the first xiaolongbao but there are a number of theories. One legend has it that a man from Nanxiang named Huang Mingxian created the first one. He owned a restaurant called Ri Hua Xuan, and in the 1870s he invented the dumpling by adding jellied meat stock to his minced pork. When steamed, the jelly would melt and fill the dumpling with soup.

The story goes he originally named the buns nanxiang da rou mantou, which means “large meat-filled bun from Nanxiang”. Though the dumplings were popular, the name was not – over time, it evolved to xiaolongbao, which translates to “small basket bun”.

Dunlop says the country’s love for xiaolongbao began when the dumplings made their way into the heart of Shanghai.

“What they say is that, in the early 20th century, a man from Nanxiang opened a restaurant near the City God Temple in Shanghai, and that’s what brought the snack into the centre of Shanghai and into the spotlight,” says the British author, who has written six books about Chinese food and culinary culture, including Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China.

Nowadays, you can find restaurants and shops selling xiaolongbao across Shanghai. The city government even listed them as one of its “protected traditional treasures” in 2006.

In Shanghai, the delicacy level and thinness of the dumpling skin can vary from place to place but xiaolongbao in Nanxiang originally had thick skins.

The sleepy village has been swallowed by Shanghai’s urban sprawl and is now considered a district of the city, but it still refers to the dumplings by their original name of xiaolong mantou.

Dunlop explains that the word mantou is an ancient Chinese word that is associated with all kinds of meat-filled buns or dumpling snacks. “You’ll find the same word used in northern China, and appearing right across the top of Central Asia from Turkey to Korea,” she says.

“So we can suppose that the xiaolongbao, though it’s best known as a dainty southern snack, actually has its roots perhaps in the flour foods and all those dumplings that you find in northern China, which in many cases date back to the … Tang dynasty [618-907] and Song dynasty [960-1279] when China started to get this very elaborate and fanciful dim sum culture.”

Many people outside Asia know xiaolongbao thanks to Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain from Taiwan. What they might not know is that the brand started off as a shop selling cooking oil in Taipei, in the late 1950s.

When business was struggling in the 1970s, founder Yang Bingyi, originally from China’s Shanxi province, and his wife dedicated half of their shop to making and selling xiaolongbao. The pork soup dumplings became such a hit that they eventually phased out the oil business and turned Din Tai Fung into a fully fledged restaurant.

Now, the chain has branches in more than 14 countries and is credited with creating the world’s international standard for xiaolongbao, thanks to its absolute precision in the art of dumpling making.

“They have little electronic scales in the kitchen and each dumpling, before steaming, must weigh exactly 21 grams [0.74 ounces] and have 18 pleats. So they’re obsessive about detail. And they took this model and then exported it,” Dunlop says.

“Din Tai Fung has become one of those quite rare Chinese food brands that have become a great hit all over the world. It put the xiaolongbao on the map for many people who are not Chinese.”

She adds that it raised eyebrows in Shanghai when a Taiwanese restaurant brought xiaolongbao back to the city.

“When Din Tai Fung first opened branches in Shanghai, there was this strange feeling about ‘why is it that a Taiwanese company is opening in Shanghai and doing a local Shanghainese snack to a very, very high standard’, but I think there are also local Shanghainese restaurants which are really good now.”

Some Shanghainese regard Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao as inauthentic but, half a world away in New York, restaurateur Elsa Zhang Yuwen, who is originally from Shanghai, is more diplomatic.

“I respect Taiwanese xiaolongbao,” Zhang says. “I see no problem if it is [made by] Taiwanese or Shanghainese. Everyone makes xiaolongbao. The flavour is a little bit different, but that’s OK.

“In the 1940s and ’50s, a lot of Shanghainese moved to Taiwan, and in that way the [Shanghainese] xiaolongbao and the Taiwanese dumpling are connected. They are different but still connected. They are still xiaolongbao.”

Zhang’s father, chef Zhang Xueling, boasts that he makes the freshest xiaolongbao in New York. For three decades, he has given Chinese immigrants in New York a taste of home with his xiaolongbao, working at popular Chinese restaurants such as Joe’s Shanghai, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, and Birds of a Feather.

Two years ago, he fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant, Memories of Shanghai, with his daughter in New York City borough Queens. He and his chefs make almost 400 xiaolongbao every day.

He learned how to make the dumplings in his native Shanghai in his 20s and found his skills in hot demand when he arrived in New York in the 1990s.

Elsa Zhang claims her father is famous in New York for his xiaolongbao because he insists on using only the freshest pork. Making the soup gelatin is a two-day process. It involves simmering fatty pork with ginger and scallions for four to six hours, then cooling it down until it becomes gelatinous. It’s this pork lard that makes the soup – and the xiaolongbao – delicious.

“I can’t say they are very healthy … it is traditional food, because in the old days people didn’t think about that,” Zhang says with a laugh.

While her father makes classic xiaolongbao, others have tried to jazz up the dumpling by using flavoured fillings. Back at Hong Kong’s Dim Sum Library, the signature is dan dan xiaolongbao, which is inspired by the spicy Sichuan noodle dish with peanut sauce known as dan dan noodles. It certainly has the mala, or spiciness with a numbing aftertaste, thanks to the addition of the Sichuan peppercorns.

Recently, Leung has developed four other flavours for xiaolongbao: hot and sour soup, beef brisket, bak kut teh, and kombu and bonito.

It took Leung around 20 attempts to get each new dumpling’s taste, ratio and consistency right. “When you make things the traditional way it’s simple, but when you add something different in there it doesn’t always work, so we had to do it by trial and error,” he explains.

Dunlop is happy to try alternative xiaolongbao flavours, but thinks the original is “a work of dumpling perfection”.

“You don’t really need to do anything to it. It’s just perfect as it is, and … it’s normally served with a dish of rice vinegar with shards of fresh ginger, which perk it up and cut through any richness. That combination of the rich savoury umami pork and that perky little spritz of vinegar and ginger is just a beautiful chord of flavour.”

Source: SCMP

Mussels with Onions, Apple, and Cider

Ingredients

2-1/4 lb mussels
1 large onion, chopped fine or sliced
1 tsp ground mace
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tart green apple, such as Granny Smith, cored, and chopped fine
1 cup hard cider
2 bay leaves
black pepper, sugar, and lemon juice to taste
2 Tbsp creme fraiche or sour cream
2 Tbsp chopped parsley

Method

  1. Wash and scrub the mussels, discarding any which are damaged or which do not close when tapped sharply. Pull off any beards.
  2. Cook the onion with the mace in the oil in a large pot until softened, then add the garlic and apple. Add the cider and bay leaves. Bring to a rapid boil.
  3. Stir in the mussels, cover the pot, and cook over very high heat for about 3 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mussels have all opened. Discard any that have failed to do so.
  4. Spoon the mussels into warmed serving plates while the pan is still on the heat – this starts the sauce reducing quickly.
  5. Continue to boil the liquor quickly until reduced by about half, then remove from the heat and season with pepper, sugar, and a squeeze of lemon juice.
  6. Discard the bay leaves, then whisk in the creme fraiche or sour cream and parsley.
  7. Spoon the sauce over the mussels and serve immediately, with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Source: Onions

Are Antivitamins the New Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are among the most important discoveries of modern medicine and have saved millions of lives since the discovery of penicillin almost 100 years ago. Many diseases caused by bacterial infections – such as pneumonia, meningitis or septicaemia – are successfully treated with antibiotics. However, bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics which then leaves doctors struggling to find effective treatments. Particularly problematic are pathogens which develop multi-drug resistance and are unaffected by most antibiotics. This leads to severe disease progression in affected patients, often with a fatal outcome. Scientists all over the world are therefore engaged in the search for new antibiotics. Researchers at the University of Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Göttingen have now described a promising new approach involving “antivitamins” to develop new classes of antibiotics. The results were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Antivitamins are substances that inhibit the biological function of a genuine vitamin. Some antivitamins have a similar chemical structure to those of the actual vitamin whose action they block or restrict. For this study, Professor Kai Tittmann’s team from the Göttingen Center for Molecular Biosciences at the University of Göttingen worked together with Professor Bert de Groot’s group from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Göttingen and Professor Tadgh Begley from Texas A&M University (USA). Together they investigated the mechanism of action at the atomic level of a naturally occurring antivitamin of vitamin B1. Some bacteria are able to produce a toxic form of this vital vitamin B1 to kill competing bacteria. This particular antivitamin has only a single atom in addition to the natural vitamin in a seemingly unimportant place and the exciting research question was why the action of the vitamin was still prevented or “poisoned”.

Tittmann’s team used high-resolution protein crystallography to investigate how the antivitamin inhibits an important protein from the central metabolism of bacteria. The researchers found that the “dance of the protons”, which can normally be observed in functioning proteins, almost completely ceases to function and the protein no longer works. “Just one extra atom in the antivitamin acts like a grain of sand in a complex gear system by blocking its finely tuned mechanics,” explains Tittmann. It is interesting to note that human proteins are able to cope relatively well with the antivitamin and continue working. The chemist de Groot and his team used computer simulations to find out why this is so. “The human proteins either do not bind to the antivitamin at all or in such a way that they are not ‘poisoned’,” says the Max Planck researcher. The difference between the effects of the antivitamin on bacteria and on human proteins opens up the possibility of using it as an antibiotic in the future and thus creating new therapeutic alternatives.

Source: University of Göttingen

Cancer and Its Treatment May Accelerate the Aging Process in Young Patients

A new study examines the effects of cancer and its treatment on the aging process. Investigators found that expression of a gene associated with aging is higher in young patients with cancer after treatment with chemotherapy and in young cancer survivors who are frail. The findings are published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Previous research has shown that a protein called p16INK4a, which slows cell division, is produced at higher levels by cells as a person ages. Using expression of the gene that codes for p16INK4a as a marker of age, Andrew Smitherman, MD, MSc, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and his colleagues examined immune cells circulating in the blood of young adult survivors of childhood cancers and of children and adolescents newly diagnosed with cancer.

The team first analyzed cells from 60 survivors and compared them with cells from 29 age-matched individuals without a history of cancer. Expression of the gene that codes for p16INK4a was higher in survivors than in controls, representing a 25-year age acceleration. Nine survivors were frail, and they had a higher level of expression compared with survivors who were not frail, representing a 35-year age acceleration.

The researchers also found that in the nine children and adolescents in the study who had a new diagnosis of cancer, expression was higher after treatment with chemotherapy than before treatment.

“Higher expression of p16INK4a in peripheral blood lymphocytes has been described in older adults following chemotherapy, but prior to this study, not in young adult survivors,” said Dr. Smitherman. “This study is important as we try to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the manifestations of early aging in this population.”

Dr. Smitherman noted that elevated p16INK4a expression as a marker of aging may help identify cancer survivors at risk for developing frailty and functional disability. “Additionally, expression of p16INK4a may prove useful as a measure to study treatments aimed at mitigating the early aging effects of cancer treatment,” he said.

Source: Wiley

Blood Pressure Meds Could Improve Survival in COVID-19 Patients

E.J. Mundell wrote . . . . . . . . .

In the largest such study yet, researchers have found that two classes of common blood pressure medications seem tied to better survival against COVID-19.

The U.K. findings should allay any worry that the two types of mediations — angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors) or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) — might actually harm COVID-19 patients.

“We know that patients with cardiovascular diseases are at particular risk of severe COVID-19 infection,” noted lead researcher Dr. Vassilios Vassiliou. “But at the start of the pandemic, there was concern that specific medications for high blood pressure could be linked with worse outcomes for COVID-19 patients,” he said.

Instead, the researchers found that the drugs weren’t harmful but rather lowered the risk of death and critical outcomes by about one-third.

“COVID-19 patients with high blood pressure who were taking ACEi/ARB medications were 0.67 times less likely to have a critical or fatal outcome than those not taking these medications,” said Vassiliou, of the Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom.

“Our research provides substantial evidence to recommend continued use of these medications if the patients were taking them already,” he said in a university news release.

The findings were based on a major review of data from 19 previously published studies. Those studies included more than 28,000 patients — the largest such study on the subject to date.

Vassiliou said his team focused on “outcomes for patients taking antihypertensives — looking particularly at what we call ‘critical’ outcomes, such as being admitted to intensive care or being put on a ventilator, and death.”

ACE inhibitors or ARBs were found to be very common medications.

“We found that a third of COVID-19 patients with high blood pressure and a quarter of patients overall were taking an ACEi/ARB. This is likely due to the increasing risk of infection in patients with [pre-existing illnesses] such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and diabetes,” Vassiliou noted.

“The really important thing that we showed was that there is no evidence that these medications might increase the severity of COVID-19 or risk of death,” he said, and they might even improve outcomes.

Vassiliou stressed, however, that the findings do not mean the blood pressure meds should be used as a treatment for COVID-19 patients who aren’t already taking them. “The mechanism of action might be different” in that context, he said.

One U.S. expert called the study findings “reassuring” for patients who rely on these medications.

“It is comforting to know that these medications have a neutral effect on the severity of COVID infection,” said Dr. Guy Mintz, who directs cardiovascular health at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

It’s unclear why taking an ACE inhibitor or an ARB might curb COVID-19, he said.

The drugs have anti-inflammatory effects “in addition to their blood pressure benefits. Could these effects neutralize some of the systemic inflammation due to COVID-19?” Mintz said. More study is needed, he believes.

In the meantime, Mintz said, “the take-home message here is if you develop COVID-19 infection, do not stop your ARB or ACE inhibitor. They are effective antihypertensive agents and have no deleterious effects in the setting of infection, and maybe afford patients a level of protection.”

The report was published in the journal Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

Source: HealthDay


Today’s Comic