Like many people during the lockdown — I'm talking about Lockdown Part 1: It Begins — not whatever this is, Lockdown II: Like Are You For Real? — I took up cooking as a way to occupy time and try to learn a new skill. Of course, you have to make the best of the situation. You have to try to find some value to add to your existence, just as a way to maybe make said existence seem less derailed and absurd.
I found cooking very much so -- sewing slightly less so -- and pushups not at all -- a good way to stave off the gaping maw of oblivion that was Lockdown 1.0.
If the abyss stares back at you, present it with a rather divine Zuppa Toscana dish you made from a recipe you got off the YouTubes!
...Is the thinking.
Cooking: like it's something you can be creative about, presents you with just the right amount of challenge, and hey you get to eat it too. What's not to like. That's just a good situation.
And so with the lockdown forever -- and ever -- behind us, I was able to take my first offline cooking class ever last week, with the famous Cici of Cici's Chinese Kitchen.
Originally from the dumplings master forge in Shandong in northern China, Cici has been living in Shanghai for the past 23 years, raising a family, and teaching homestyle Chinese cuisine in her cooking school. In the mid-to-late ‘10s she was teaching the dumpling arts to mainly tourists, a few emerging celebs, and even a few professional international chefs searching for xiaolongbao secrets to take back with them to their home countries.
Then, around 2020-ish, some stuff happened. And she moved her classes online. She joined AirBnB's "Online Experiences" program, teaching to an international audience and wracking up more than 2,000 reviews over the years. Recently, she's back offline and has relaunched her offline classes. She does a lot of different ones but her main ones are the xiaolongbao classes and the "colorful dumplings" class, which is rainbow dim sum in dazzling shapes and Starburst colors that compel you to photograph and post. Today, we're keeping it classic.
Today, we're cooking up some xiaolongbaos!
(AKA them lil' guys with the soup in them.)
I've been in Shanghai a while and have had my fair share of XLBs. Right off the bat, I can tell you that the authentic way of eating them is to slam them into your mouth right away, scald the ever loving bejeezus out of your lips and tongue, tilt your head backwards sputtering soup into the air, make two devil horns with your fists, and yell out GOORRDDAAAM TGGTAHTS HAATT!!!
But how are they made! How do they get the soup in there in particular?
Class begins with some very warm introductions wherein I introduced myself and my teacher introduced herself. A very important step in the social interaction that is dumplings creation. It's less a class and more friends hanging out.
According to demand, classes can be one on one or sometimes she leads a small group of two, three, or four. All the ingredients and initial preparations are already done when you arrive at the venue, which is a small private dining area in a Chinese restaurant on Changshu Lu.
For fillings today we're making two kinds: traditional pork fillet and a pork and a shrimp combo. Vegetarian options are also available as well. Cici herself is vegetarian.
Getting right into it, making some skins, baby. We're using all purpose flour and a dim sum tecnique of mixing the flower and water, with concentric circles to measure portions. Mesmerizing. Lil' volcano guy.
Getting some elbow into this... getting all the dry flower absorbed. Scrape, scrape, scrape, knead, knead, knead.
We keep kneading until we "have a baby's bottom texture." Ah!
With a damp cloth over our dough to relax it a bit we turn our attention to the filling. So far we're at pork shoulder (40% fat oi!), ginger, and spring onions. A flurry of ingredients goes in using one direction to stir: rice wine of course, salt, red pepper powder, sesame oil, and sugar. Home-made style.
Turning our attention back to the skins. Rolling it out...
...making lil' cigar guys...
...cutting them up into individual bits...
...which we SMASH with our hands into a flat-ish circle in a very therapeutic sort of way.
With our individual circle skins, there's a bit of technique here. We roll them out 3/4 of the way on one side, flip them around, and repeat the gesture until we have...
...a perfect dumpling circle shape. Look at this perfection. When you have one of these in your hand, I cannot overstate the feelings of accomplishment and serenity. If you need me in the next few weeks, I'll be hiding in my apartment, rolling out perfect dumplings circles, pausing only briefly, with a smile, when a great, overpowering flash shatters the kitchen window, signifying the final and merciful CTRL-ALT-DEL on this whole thing we've got going on here...
There's still more to do. And here's where the true craft comes in. We're loading up our circle guys with filling.
You have to be sure to not get too little or too much.
And then, spinning them around in our two hands, we're folding the outside to create a little pleated pocket of XLB goodness.
It's a little tricky. The gesture sort of reminded me of knitting? There's probably a better way to describe it. You're going for consistency of folds, keeping your thumb on the filling to make sure it's centered and packed in there. I managed two not-bad ones in the time it took Cici to do like 7 or 8. Mine are at 6 and 7 o'clock here.
I got the spirit. Maybe losing a bit of feeling.
Here's where there was a pop quiz:
Cici: And how do you think the soup gets in there?
SmSh: Uhh... Magic? ...Jesus?
...Is it Jesus?
SmSh: Like a syringe? Do you inject it?
SmSh: Seriously, that's my answer. I got no eff'ing idea. Syringe maybe? What's the answer?
Apparently, the fatty bits on the pork melt into a soup. Or something. Huh! That's much more reasonable. I still think magic plays a pretty big part however.
We steamed them up...
...and dug in!
Amazingly delicious and the roof of my mouth was burned all to hell which means we did it right.
And we even went on to make some pan-frieds!
I had a really great time in this class. Easily as good as the helicopter class. Cici as a teacher and as an interesting person to make dumplings with is engaging and funny and laid-back and nice and lovely and super friendly. It really was a fun way to spend an afternoon, spending time with a really creative person, and learning about this one emblematic dish -- and sort of almost being able to pull it off myself?
(I'm counting it as a success and adding XLBs to my book of recipes that I mainly copied from YouTube.)
I can see these classes being a great family activity, maybe a fun date activity, or just some new experience to share with a friend that doesn't invovle a bar.
(Maybe go to the bar after? Let's be real.)
Wholehearted recommendation. You should try it! Even just to escape for an afternoon and improve your existence.
Cici's Chinese Kitchen Class Details
Cici is offering two of her classes — "Soup Dumpling Class" (this one) and "Colorful Dumplings Class" to SmartShanghai readers at the discount price of 299rmb all-in. (Usually they are 380rmb).
The price includes the 2.5 hour lesson, all ingredients, and all the XLB secrets you never even knew. Classes are available in Chinese and English, with a fully vegetarian option. Great for kids aged 3 to 99. Click on this link for more information.