Cook the Books – China Towns

. February 14, 2018
Photography by David Parker.
Cook the Books – China Towns

David Parker had been on the look out for a recipe for 'magical' Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) for a while. In his latest cook book review, find out if the recipe from Jean François Mallet's China Towns lived up to his high expectations.

Journalist and former chef Jean François Mallet visited China Towns the world over while researching this book. Instead of focusing on American–Chinese cuisine or what the greater Western world thinks of as 'Chinese Food' the book tends to lean toward the traditional, but the recipes are simplified and often slightly Westernised. A symptom of these dishes being made in China Towns in a country that might not have all the ingredients required means they’re not always completely authentic. Surprisingly, there are also a couple of Vietnamese, Thai and Korean dishes in the book as China Towns have attracted different cultures too.

I've been wanting to try my hand at Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) for some time. I've made many a dumpling but when I was introduced to Xiao Long Bao they intrigued me. How did they get the soup inside? Well you turn a broth into a jelly which will then melt when the dumplings get cooked. Amazing. There’s something magic about it; it’s such a simple concept with an amazing effect when the soup bursts out of the dumpling into your mouth. Of course, the first thing I looked for in China Towns was Xiao Long Bao and I was so disappointed to not find them, but then I remembered the book was Westernised, so I looked for their other common name: Juicy Pork Dumplings. Success!

Traditionally you'd make a simple chicken or pork broth and then boil it with pork skin to extract the gelatin from it, but this recipe just called for pre–made beef stock and leaves of gelatin. I soaked the gelatin in cold water to soften it, added it to the beef stock and ginger and brought to the boil. 

Once the gelatin had dissolved fully I took the beef stock off the heat and left to cool in the fridge overnight. 

The next day I dealt with mincing the pork. The recipe calls for pork loin but I couldn't be sure of the provenance of any of the ground pork available and I still don't own a meat mincer. I figured I could just use the food processor trick again. First, I cut the skin off the pork loin and discarded it (sigh, it would've been perfect to boil up with the broth to extract the gelatin from it! What a waste!) then I cut the pork loin into cubes and after they'd been in the freezer for about 20 minutes I could blend them in small batches. Finely ground pork loin! Great!

Then I added chopped spring onions, ginger, salt, sugar, rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil and a bit of water and mixed them together. I set aside the filling to get to work on the dumpling skins. 

The dumpling skins are just made from flour and water – nothing else. I poured the water into a well in the flour and mixed it in with my hands before kneading for a few minutes. I finished off the kneading by working the dough on a bench with a rolling pin for about 5 minutes.

I separated the finished dough into 40 little balls and put them in a plastic container so they didn't dry out.

Annoyingly I forgot to take photos of the dumpling skin rolling process! I even bought a special little rolling pin that's really good for rolling out dumpling skins, you can get them at most Chinese supermarkets, I think mine was about $6, because it's small you can roll the pin with one hand and turn the dumpling skin with the other. 

Once I had some skins rolled out into circles I filled a few. I don't like to do them all at once as the skins either stick together or dry out.

Now, I don't want to boast but I make a pretty neat dumpling most of the time – I don't even like being helped because I want the dumplings to look uniform. But I was a little bit ashamed of my efforts at folding the Xiao Long Bao. I just couldn't get the hang of it! In the photos they don't look as bad as I thought they were, but they were very annoying to fold and took a lot longer than the way I fold regular Jiaozi. Maybe I'd get the hang of it eventually. Maybe I need to ask someones grandma for a lesson. 

I brought some water to a boil in a wok and then steamed them in batches in a bamboo steamer. 

The sauce is just soy, Chinese black vinegar and ginger. Personally, I don't think there should be a recipe for the sauce mix because it's all personal preference and it was too much vinegar and not enough soy for my liking. Plus, I couldn't resist adding a few drops of chilli oil!

It worked! They look like Xiao Long Bao! The skins sag down and form a little foot around the bottom of the dumpling and you know there is soupy goodness in there. They exploded in my mouth, not enough soup for my liking but it was there. Magic! I felt like they were overly gingery and maybe not sweet or salty enough. I also thought the skins weren't delicate enough, a little bit chewy. Maybe they should've been rolled out thinner but I weighed and measured them all so I'm not sure. Or perhaps there should've been a little more water in the dough. But they were really good, very tasty! 


The Book Cooked
Level of expertise required: I'd say medium, there are a few interesting techniques but I think most recipes could be easily accomplished.
How many trips to the supermarket required? One, to your local Chinese supermarket! We have a great wealth of Chinese supermarkets and you should find almost everything you need there, if not at your regular supermarket. Fortunately, most of our regular supermarkets are waking up to stocking a selection of imported ingredients and most of the recipes from China Towns came about because traditional ingredients were hard to come by, so it shouldn't be too hard to source anything.
How closely did the dishes resemble the pictures? 7/10 I need to work on my dumpling folding :( 
Ease of reading: I will say that it is quite a thick book! I couldn't get it on the recipe stand and it was hard to get it to stay open, but otherwise very easy to read. I think I would've been interested in a little bit more history and information on the different China Towns around the world, there is one page towards the back with a brief synopsis of each one but I'd be interested in more detail and photographs. But as I said, its already a thick book!
Pretty on the coffee table or designed to be battered through overuse? I love the photography in China Towns, I love the gratuitous full page photo after full page photo. The colours are vibrant and the dishes look delicious, I happily flicked through it for quite some time. I'm not so sure that I would buy this book to cook from though, while there is some great stuff in here and it's inspiring to look through I think I'd personally be after something maybe a little more authentic. I also hate that there is a section called 'weird and wonderful'. I know that this is written for a Western palate but maybe chicken feet should be in the chicken section, curried fish heads should be in the fish section rather than turning them into a novelty.