How to Really Eat a Soup Dumpling

It's more complex than you think.

In the dumpling game, XLB (that would be xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings, for those who don't know) are the high rollers' table. Get it right and you're rewarded with juicy, porky heaven. Fumble with your chopsticks and you've got a scalded mouth and a wet chin at best (a ruined dumpling and guffawing friends at worst).

Xiao long bao (literally "small basket buns," named for the bamboo baskets they’re steamed in) have delicate skins that encase a pork-based filling and a gelatinized meat broth. During steaming, the broth liquefies, poaching the pork in a rich, savory soup. As the dumplings cool, the broth solidifies and the skin hardens, which is why XLB need to be eaten quickly, but not too quickly.

For the best XLB-tackling tips, we talked to Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and Fuchsia Dunlop, author of  Land of Fish and RiceWe also called on New York restaurateurs Xian Zhang, co-owner of Michelin-starred Café China, and the former Drunken Dumpling's Yuan Lee, who is responsible for unleashing the XL XLB—the super-sized soup dumplings that would sell out in 15 minutes.

Here's your guide to slurping soup dumplings without embarrassing yourself.

How to get the dumpling onto your spoon

XLB have a thinner skin than an adolescent with new braces, so the objective here is to get the dumpling from the bamboo steamer onto your spoon without rupturing it.

"Place your Chinese soup spoon close to the dumpling," advises Young. "Grab the dumpling close to the knot with your chopsticks and gently lift it from the steamer."

What if your chopsticks skills aren't so flash? "You can't use a fork, obviously," says Zhang. "But you could ask the restaurant for a small pair of tongs or use your hands, as long as you wash them first." If the dumpling sticks to the bottom of the steamer, peel it off slowly; tugging is sure to result in a rip.

soup dumplings
Flickr/Frank Fujimoto

How to eat it without burning your mouth

"Resist the temptation to stuff it into your mouth immediately or things may get scalding hot and messy," warns Dunlop.

Zhang agrees. "Remember that it's basically a pouch of superheated stock. You need to let the steam out and let it cool for a few seconds."

There are two ways to do that, according to Drunken Dumpling's Lee. "In a fine-dining restaurant, they will give you a bigger spoon so you can take a smaller bite along the side." That way the broth drains into the spoon and you can sip it daintily. "At a restaurant like mine where you have smaller spoons, you nip off the top of the dumpling." Give it a few moments to cool and suck the juice directly out of the skin. Once the dangerous part is over, you can devour the rest of the dumpling without fear.

What to do with that little dish of... is that soy sauce?

Nope. It's a dipping sauce of black vinegar with fresh ginger. The way you use it is a matter of personal choice and each of our experts has a different recommendation:

  • Zhang: Put the vinegar in your empty spoon before scooping up the dumpling.
  • Dunlop: Dip the dumpling in the sauce before putting it in your spoon.
  • Young: Place the dumpling in your spoon and then drizzle the vinegar over it.
  • Lee: Add sauce to the drained dumpling after you've slurped all the broth out.

Whatever you do, says Zhang, do not pour the dipping sauce inside the dumpling with the broth -- that will ruin the soup.

"Remember that you only need a little bit," he adds. "The point of the vinegar is not to flavor the dumpling, it's to balance the gaminess of the filling."

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Sarah Theeboom is a freelance food, lifestyle, and travel writer. She's all about orange slices, not fortune cookies. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.