The finest accomplishment of human culture is, contrary to popular belief, not modern medical science, trans-planetary travel or the delicately-brutal brushstrokes of the late Lucien Freud. Nope, as any level-headed person knows, the summit of our species’ achievement occurred somewhere in Nanxiang around 1875, when Mr. Huang Mingxian discovered how to get soup inside a dumpling.
Called ‘xiao long bao,’ literally, ‘little basket buns’, these tiny wonders cram pork, crab or shrimp into an elastic-but-pillowy skin, with a layer of liquid soup magma in between. Though they’ve been a standard of Cantonese cooking, XLB really took off when Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung (more on them later) began exporting them worldwide, thus achieving global domination.
The preparation of little basket buns is somewhat more involved than that of your standard-issue dumpling. Although they’re steamed in a regulation bamboo basket, the steaming water is often oiled, with the addition of pine needles or vegetable leaves providing the xiao long bao with a subtle aroma. Some chefs even inject the heady broth directly into their dumpling’s skin.
What results is a textural epiphany: the slightly resistant, if silky, outer layer gives way to an explosion hot soup that’s been tenderising the porky sphere within… It’s hard writing about it. Thankfully, Australia has an embarrassment of little basket buns to choose from; what follows is a short guide to some of the most consistently and greedily devoured in the country.
Level 1, Shop 11.04
644 George Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Ph: (02) 9264 6010
This is it: the gold standard. Though xiao long bao originated outside of Shanghai, this Taiwanese chain has done more to spread the word than any other dumpling disciple. Once a cooking-oil manufacturer, its founders diversified into XLB once the oil business went down the gurgler. Now, Din Tai Fung has branches the world over, and for good reason: they’re the best. Each xiao long bao is made to order, and with each skin precisely weighed in between 4.8 and 5.2 grams with an exact 6cm diameter, before being stuffed to weigh between 20.6 and 21.4 gram. It’s science – and an art.
273 Liverpool Rd
Ashfield, NSW 2131
Believe it or not, Din Tai Fung isn’t the only XLB game in Sydney – though you might need to hop a train to the Inner West to get in on it. Ashfield’s New Shanghai is among the best Non-Tai Fung xiao long bao in Sydney, with professionals rolling, stretching and stuffing these little miracles before diners’ eyes. Also: their soup layer is also hotter than the sun. Consider yourself warned.
399 William St
Northbridge, WA 6003
Shanghai Tea Garden’s petite, periwinkle-shaped twists of xiao long bao are beautifully executed and steamed carefully. Though their skins are a little thicker than the ideal, it does helpfully contain the dumpling’s piping-hot soupy innards. They also come in an unusually-generous serving of five. But order two. Or more.
Emma’s Dim Sum Cafe Delight
168 Newcastle Street
Northbridge, WA 6003
When it comes to soup dumplings, Perth knows what’s going on. This Northbridge institution charges by the size of the dish, ranging between $4 and the princely sum of $8. Some locals describe Emma’s xiao long bao as ‘the best in Perth,’ though New Moon Dim Sum deserves an honourable mention too.
Shop 1003-1004, 199 Grey St
South Brisbane, QLD 4101
Brisbane’s got more than a few go-to’s on the little basket bun front, the most popular among which is Bamboo Basket. The fashionable little place on Southbank throngs with dumpling-lovers, probably because serves up super-sized xiao long bao that hold their soup consistently.
31 Gouger St
Adelaide, SA 5000
08 8221 5707
This cheap n’ cheerful Chinese joint in Adelaide mightn’t boast Australia’s most sophisticated xiao long bao, but, you’ll get a huge serving made with fresh pork and a skin that’s carefully stretched, folded and pinched – for peanuts.
2368 Sandy Bay Road,
Sandy Bay, TAS
03 6223 3298
Tasmanian xiao long bao addicts will probably need a trip across the Strait to satisfy their dumpling needs, but while on the island Written on Tea keeps their problem in check mid-week. Its owners, Rebecca and Patrick Ling, learned the trade in Nanjing, and their restaurant is a very personal take on southern cuisine. Their speciality, however, are the juicy xiao long bao buns, which are acclaimed for being particularly soupy.
4-16 Market Ln,
Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9650 8128
Hutong is the by-word for fancy dumplings in Melbourne. Although it draws inevitable comparisons with the incomparable Din Tai Fung, no-one is complaining: instead, they’re packing the place out, making it fairly impossible to get a table without a reservation. But, once the pork-and-prawn xia long bao delivery, with its muscular broth, hits the table, all is forgiven.
Plaza Level, Rialto Towers, 525 Collins Street
Melbourne, VIC 3000
(03) 9077 7937
The trendiest entry among Australia’s xiao long bao set is Mr Huang Jin, a new ‘Taiwanese tapas’ joint in the Rialto Towers. Jin’s chefs not only hand-mould every XLB, they mainline a dose of soup straight into the dumpling’s exquisitely-thin flesh.
342 Little Bourke St,
Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9600 2250
It’s not unusual to see Melburnians queuing for food, but Shanghai Street takes things to another level: dinner and lunch, every single day, punters line up down Little Bourke. They’ve good reason: Shanghai Street makes the cheapest, most reliably delicious handmade soup dumpling. Only those who eat early eat often.