“The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease,
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.”
– Robert Browning
If the shortening days weren’t enough of a reminder, October brought its particular combination of drizzle and chill to let us know that autumn is definitely getting started. I’ve felt the urge to check out the fruity pebble colored mittens in my closet and make sure all my cold weather gear is set. On Saturday we ventured out into the grayness, and I had the overwhelming urge for some comfort food – namely, Chinese soup dumplings.
Known as xiao long bao, these steamed buns are at their best when the delicious soup and pork filling is enclosed in a thin, delicate wrapper. The entire process of eating one is so satisfying that the table gets – and stays – much quieter when the bamboo baskets arrive. We sit and admire them for a minute or so to make sure the translucent skin has a chance to firm up a bit. If we grab one too early, the skin might tear, spilling scorchingly hot soup. The plump dumplings have to make it onto the spoon intact to fully enjoy the experience of devouring one.
On the spoon, each dumpling sits like a minor triumph. The best way to get to the middle involves taking a tiny bite from the top and allowing the steam to escape first. Then you can drink the soup from the dumpling or catch it in the spoon. With most of the soup gone, the rest can be popped in your mouth via spoon, or with a chopstick assist.
As for how the soup gets into the dumpling in the first place, the process is ingenious. The ingredients are cooked until they form a jellied stock. Loosely mixed pork, ginger, scallions, and seasoning are combined with small cubes of the stock. At low temperature, the jellied stock is solid, but when heated it melts into a richly flavored soup. In fact, the pork filling also seems to melt when it is combined loosely and has the proper fat content.
Unlike other comfort foods, xiao long bao fill you with warmth without leaving you so overwhelmingly full that you need a nap. When combined with spicy eggplant, scallion pancakes, and some other Chinese favorites, they make a meal. On their own, they are an ideal snack or alternative to a cup of soup.
The first day of October ushered in a chilly gray we had not seen for many months. Instinctively I craved the sort of soup dumplings that are rolled by hand and labored over for hours. As autumn grows, we will be craving comfort foods even more, and part of the comfort lies in enjoying the traditions and processes that deliver warmth and nourish us.