Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
The XiaoLongBao Masters
As I mentioned in the past, I love Chinese food.
The culinary arts have been a very important part of Chinese culture and many recipes have been passed down through generations of master chefs in China.
Much of the “Chinese food” we get in the United States is an Americanized version of Cantonese cookery with some Szechwan and Hunan dishes thrown in for good measure. That is because many of the Chinese that came to build the American railroads in the 19th century were from Guangdong (Canton) province, and brought their traditional cooking methods with them. It is only recently, especially right after Hong Kong was ceded back to mainland China that we saw many new Chinese restaurants opening up in the U.S., most owned and operated by Hong Kong expats.
I had heard of the Din Tai Fung chain of dumpling houses and during my recent trip to Taiwan I knew that I had to visit at least one to taste their dumplings and especially their XiaoLongBao(known in the English speaking world as soup dumplings or juicy little buns) for which they are world-famous.
XiaoLongBao is a steamed bun or baozi; a specialty from Nanxiang, a suburb of Shanghai, and from the Wuxi area of China, and are always steamed in small bamboo baskets. XiaoLongbao are pinched at the crown prior to steaming, so the skin has a circular cascade of folds (the Din Tai Fung version has famously 18 pleats) and is tender, smooth, and somewhat translucent. The soup-filled kind is created by wrapping aspic inside the skin, alongside the ground pork and vegetable filling, before the dumplings are steamed on a bed of cabbage leaves.To be eaten, the buns are dipped in Chinkiang vinegar with slivered ginger. In Canton and the Western world they are commonly served as part of Cantonese yum cha (tea lunch).
Believe me, this journey was an outstanding culinary experience.
Many of the company’s restaurants are in Taipei (where the company started as a cooking oil seller) though they have also opened restaurants in other cities around the world with large Chinese populations, including the West Coast of the United States. Both Honk Kong branches were awarded one Michelin star each, for the last five years; what other chain restaurant anywhere in the world has Michelin stars?
We were in Taipei on a holiday Sunday, and the first Din Tai Fung restaurant we tried was without one vacant seat! It was not only jam-packed, there was a long waiting line out the door, into the street. So it was decided that we should try the one at Taipei 101, a much larger venue with a central glass-enclosed working area where the XiaoLongbao and other dumplings and pot-stickers are masterfully created by cooks dressed in all white surgical-style masks, caps and gowns.
Described by some less than knowledgeable tourists as a “fast food joint” Din Tai Fung is, in reality, a culinary treasure of Taipei. If it seems I’m gushing... please excuse me; I had one of the best meals here, above and beyond any expectation; as good as any Michelin-stared restaurant I have been to - and I have eaten at numerous one, two and three starred establishments. The service was swift, polite, excellently attentive, and multi-lingual. The XiaoLongbao, ShiaoMai, buns and pot-stickers were to die for.
We started with a plate of Spicy Pickled Cucumber; fresh, cool and bathed in a hot chili-oil vinaigrette dressing, a great way to stimulate the palate. Next came a bowl of Noodles with House Special Spicy Sauce, not as tingly as the cucumber, but certainly spicy enough.
A steamer basket of PorkXiaoLongbao, their signature dish, followed. Pure delight!
Spicy Shrimp and Pork Wonton came together with the Pork XiaoLongBao; the balance of taste between the subtle soup dumplings and the spicy wonton was perfect.
The real highlight of the evening was the pork and truffle XiaoLongBao - a completely unexpected combination. The black truffles added a rich earthiness to the dumplings, but the truffle amount has clearly been carefully intended not to overwhelm the pork. These beauties were easily among the best things I had eaten during my Taipei sojourn.
Grilled PrawnPot-Stickers and Steamed Shrimp and Pork ShiaoMai followed, and we were almost full. The grilled prawn dumplings had an interesting appearance; the individual pot-stickers were joined together by a thin, very crispy layer of buttery pastry and they had to be snapped apart to be shared amongst the group.
But, as Chinese tradition dictates, to make sure we were absolutely full, a soup (Braised Beef with Noodles and Scallions) was served last.
During the meal we had a light Taiwanese lager that was cold and slightly bitter, almost like the Belgian Stella Artois, but my preference was the jasmine tea offered with the meal.
My conclusion: if you’re in Taipei, then you owe it to yourself to make your way to one of the Din Tai Fung restaurants. Ignore anything that isn’t a dumpling and prepare yourself for outstanding food, at a price that is low, even by New York City Chinese eatery standards.
© May 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.