There’s a long-standing rift in my family over how soup gets inside xiao long bao dumplings. The popular school of thought is that chefs freeze the liquid into cubes and parcel them up into the flour-based skin before steaming.
A more radical faction maintains that the soup is carefully injected into the pre-assembled teardrop dumpling with a syringe after cooking.
How painfully wrong we all were.
According to chef Masahiko Kobayashi, xiao long bao gets its inner liquid from aspic — a gelatinous filling that’s scooped into solid piles and dissolved inside the dumpling while it cooks. Sorry family.
Kobayashi heads up the Japanese arm of the popular Taiwanese chain Jin Din Rou, which popped up in Ebisu in 2005 and now has 11 stores across Japan.
Every day, you can watch his team diligently assemble a myriad of dumplings: plump, juicy xiao long bao in numerous varieties such as crab meat or green tea and oolong; tall, meaty shūmai with shrimp, crab or sticky rice; or delicious, soup-filled shrimp gyōza. One bamboo basket after another moves out into the crowded restaurant filled with the steaming morsels.
Roughly translating to “touch of the heart,” dim sum is characterized by colorful arrays of typically steamed or fried, bite-sized dishes served with tea. The tradition goes back to the days of the Silk Road when teahouses served it up as a light snack for travelers.
Modern iterations of the cuisine are expansive. The Taiwanese, for instance, “do xiao long bao differently,” says Kobayashi, offering more varieties and prepared with a different dough to the traditional Shanghai version. Also, dim sum are usually eaten for lunch and dinner in Taiwan, compared to in China where they are served at a yum cha brunch.
The cuisine became popular in Japan “about 25 years ago,” says Kobayashi, and has since found a comfortable groove. Nowadays, Tokyo is flush with options. Jin Din Rou and the Taiwanese Michelin-starred chain Din Tai Fung are one among the most popular medium-to-top end options.
Another international powerhouse, Tim Ho Wan, stepped onto the scene in April with its first Japan outpost in Hibiya. If you’re willing to brave the line (up to three hours, according to one punter), the Hong Kong chain — until recently the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant — offers timeless Cantonese-style dim sum dishes.
Standouts include the long and supple BBQ pork rice rolls that are perfectly gooey and come to the table submerged in a pleasantly sweet soy sauce. Each dish is around ¥600 and served with bottomless cups of piping-hot pu’er tea.
On the even cheaper end, China Chakan in Ikebukuro is an unfussy neighborhood-style Taiwanese dim sum haunt, with a somehow comforting abundance of red, glowing paper lanterns and revolving Lazy Susans.
Its seemingly endless all-you-can-eat dim sum menu (good for two hours) includes har gao, shūmai and almost comically large cha siu bao pork buns. To boot, you can watch your dumplings being assembled by kindly old women sitting off in a corner of the restaurant.
One last tip: as the menu at Jin Din Rou advises, xiao long bao should be slurped before noshed. Do so by piercing the dumpling on your spoon, and gently cutting “an opening for the soup to come out” with your chopsticks. (Not, as my family would have it, by chomping off the nip and siphoning out the juice like a feeding calf.)
Finally, add a little black vinegar-doused shredded ginger for flavor, as opposed to saucing the whole dumpling.
“Don’t stop,” the guide continues. “And most importantly, enjoy.” Easy.
Dim Sum in Tokyo
You can find the dim sum stores mentioned in the above article at:
Jin Din Rou Ebisu
Qiz Ebisu 2F, Ebisu 4-3-1, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0013
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (L.O.), 5:30 p.m.-11p.m. (L.O.); Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m. (L.O.), Sun. and holidays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (L.O.), 5:30-10 p.m. (L.O.)
Tim Ho Wan
Hibiya Chanter Bekkan 1F, Yurakucho 1-2-2, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0006
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Din Tai Fung Shinjuku
Takashimaya Times Square Bldg. 12F, Sendagaya 5-24-2, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-8580
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-11 p.m.
China Chakan (中国茶館)
Mikasa Bldg. 2F, Nishiikebukuro 1-22-8, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 171 0021
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m (L.O.)
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5