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In Search of the Elusive Soup Dumpling

It can be hard to find in D.C. — and it's certainly hard to make.

Soup Dumplings
Soup Dumplings

Dumplings are considered by most to be small packages of delight. And among the most delightful, and of course most challenging to make, are soup dumplings or xiao long bao in Chinese. Traditionally, it's a steamed dumpling with a gelatin-rich soup and pork meatball contained inside a drawstring purse-shaped skin. Another traditional preparation tops the meatball with crab meat and a touch of crab roe.

Its consumption is a constant balancing act. The first step is getting it from the bamboo steamer to a deep bowled Chinese soup spoon without piercing the skin and losing the soup. Second, it must be eaten piping hot before the soup thickens as it attempts to reform into gelatin. This means a precarious dance with nibbling open a small hole in the skin and sucking the hot soup out without scalding oneself.

Some clever individuals who are more skilled with their chopsticks will nibble a hole in the skin and empty the soup into their spoon to cool slightly. For additional flavor, drizzle a little black vinegar on top and add a few ginger shreds before eating the rest.

Chef Scott Drewno serves XLB at The Source on the brunch menu as a special, and notes that they can be a challenge to make. "I worked on them for years. They're very easy to make in small quantities. But when you talk about putting them on the menu, it's a little more difficult. You're trying to put soup inside a dumpling. The tricky thing is how to maintain the elasticity of the dough so it doesn't absorb the soup and won't deteriorate."

But a good XLB isn't just about a perfect thin, elastic skin. The pork meatball must be tender and slightly loose, but not pasty. And the broth should be rich and porky.

Some have created variations on XLB. There are extra large soup dumplings that stretch the full size of a steamer basket that require a straw to sip out the soup. But Drewno notes that they don't make for good eating. "I've had one with French onion soup. But I prefer the straight up classic. I'm more of a purist. I love soup dumplings. The chewy, elastic dough and the savory salty stock. I always serve it with a little bit vinegar and fresh ginger for acidity."

And as a testament to the challenge of creating a perfect XLB, Drewno explains, "There aren't any places I've hit locally that I'm too enthralled by. I'd recommend Din Tai Fung in Seattle, L.A. and Singapore, Jade Garden in Beijing, and Joe's Shanghai in New York."

Indeed, soup dumplings are a lot easier to find in places like New York's Chinatown. But there are some local spots that serve as good introductions to XLB. Shanghai Taste in Rockville lists them on its Chinese menu, where they are a favorite and packs in customers on the weekends. Bob's Shanghai 66 , also in Rockville, is another popular spot for XLB, and features a booth to watch as they fold the dumplings. Check out the map below for even more options. Sip cautiously — and try not to spill.

Editor markup for Nine Restaurants to Find the Elusive Soup Dumpling. This is only visible in the story editor.

Have you tried a decent soup dumpling around town? Let us know where in the comments.

Soup dumplings at Bob's Shanghai 66 [Photo: Facebook]