"No, no, no, no!" shrieked the tiny woman standing opposite me across the meter-wide stainless steel counter. "Pinch and pull, pinch and pull," she continued, her smiling eyes belying the vague note of despair that crept into her voice. Undeterred, I took a fold of tender dough between thumb and forefinger and tried to coordinate my fumbling fingers to make another of the many delicate folds that are the hallmark of Shanghai's best known dumpling, the xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包).
These delicious pockets of fine dough, filled with a nugget of minced meat and pork jelly that melts into a flavorsome soup when steamed are at their best when the dough is almost paper thin, twisted into a rippling peak to protect the bounty within. My first efforts were rather more like little cardboard volcanoes, with an ungainly crater in the top left by my retreating thumb as I struggled to close the top without crushing the rest of my handiwork. After much teasing, coaxing and ripped dough skins, and under the expert auspices of Chef Lin, my fingers and shoulders started to relax and I began to find something like a rhythm as I pinched and pulled and gently manipulated the dumpling round and round in my palm.
Discovering the Secrets of Shanghai's Xiaolongbao
I was at the tiny Shanghai's Dongping Road (Dōngpíng Lù, 东平路) for a private xiaolongbao class. Created in 2003 by founders Aga and Sun in response to expat friends looking for a place to learn some local cooking skills while in Shanghai, the Chinese Cooking Workshop was the first hands-on cooking workshop targeting expats to open in the city. Offering some of the best value cooking classes in Shanghai, I was keen to check it out and add a few Chinese cooking skills to my (admittedly limited) kitchen arsenal.
Arriving at the school one cold winter evening after work, I was greeted by a smiling ayi who bustled about and shepherded me through a corridor lined with pots sprouting cooking utensils of various forms, through the narrow, dimly-lit galley kitchen at the back of the building and into the cooking classroom. Small and simple, there were just two freestanding metal worktops and a third against the wall with an aged extractor hood on one side and small window on the other. As the only student there, I had plenty of space as I shuffled about hanging up my coat and washing my hands, and then along came Slyvia, my interpreter and diminutive Chef Guo Li Jin.
Pinch and Pull, Pinch and Pull
We quickly got down to business as Chef Guo set to work mixing the flour and water that was soon to be transformed into my dinner. Together we mixed, kneaded and rolled while Sylvia and the chef chatted away in Chinese, occasionally interrupted by exclamations of "no, no, no, no," followed by a translation from Sylvia to explain what I was doing wrong.
Watching the graceful dance of Chef Guo's hands gliding easily across the dough, I tried to mirror her actions and eventually ended up with a passable succession of round pancakes and balls of dough, ready for a xiaolongbao assembly trial run. This was the really tricky bit, folding the dumplings. Using balls of dough instead of meat, both Chef Guo and Sylvia giggled at my efforts as I frowned and pulled my way to reproducing some semblance of the examples set before me.
"How old was chef when she made her first xiaolongbao?" I inquired, hoping I might blame my lack of nimble fingers on learning the skill too late in life. "More than 20," came the slightly disappointing response. "Can you make them?" I asked Sylvia. "I've tried once before in another class," she said, "but it's too hard."
By the time the we came to round two, the meat, Sylvia had joined in the fray and Chef Guo chided us equally for our heavy-handedness. We eventually finished the class with three baskets of xiaolongbao that, although they might not pass muster at my local xiaolongbao joint and would most certainly be laughed out of the kitchen at Din Tai Fung, were nevertheless respectable for a first attempt. But, like any dish, the truth is in the tasting and after eight minutes in the steamer we were ready to attack. Though a little under-seasoned, they were surprisingly tasty, their translucent skins giving way to a burst of hot soup. They looked like xiaolongbao, tasted like xiaolongbao and with the recipe sheets in hand I was almost confident that I could recreate them alone.
My mission was accomplished, but before leaving, Sylvia ran me through some of their other popular classes and egg tarts and sticky rice chicken wrapped in lotus leaf are next on my hit list. It's a tough choice though as there's a huge range of options and they've expanded beyond just Chinese cuisine, offering cake, pastry and bread classes from their bakery, Chinese food and wine pairing classes, chef dinners and wet market tours where they'll unlock the secrets of all the wonderful but mystifying produce available in your neighborhood. Scheduled classes start at just RMB 150 including ingredients and are a great value and fun way to learn a delicious new skill and keep a piece of China with you long after you leave the country behind.