taiwan: the dumpling pilgrimage

i’d been planning to go to din tai fung, taipei’s (and now singapore, seoul, L.A. and wherever else they’ve set up satellites) legendary dumpling house. this is (one of?) the larger location where there’s not as much waiting in lines. (unfortunate, because i definitely wanted to see one of these space mountain-worthy lines myself.)

inside, the dumpling crew is shut up in a glass-walled wonka-style dumpling lab/workshop, where they work, surrounded by bamboo steamer baskets and equipment for mixing up industrial amounts of dumpling dough. you can watch them

efficiently roll out, stuff and pleat their famous

xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, a shanghainese specialty. if you’re not familiar, these are like your usual very delicious steamed dumplings, save for a fun soup surprise. (when they make these, the filling includes a chunk of aspic, which melts into soup when the dumplings are cooked.) dumplings are definitely among my favoritest things to eat. and xiao long bao rank up there as one of the best versions. the shanghainese are also known for their noodles, and din tai fung offers many kinds,

like this one — a saucy, toothsome version that reminds me a little of dan dan noodles, but maybe more refined. in the background: a little dish of soy sauce and vinegar with some fine strands of shredded ginger, for dipping your xiao long bao.

they also had excellent noodles at dian shui lou, a newer establishment that also specializes in soup dumplings (din tai fung is to the dumpling world what magnolia bakery is to cupcakes. except that DTF’s reputation is most justly deserved), a much more intimate place (that still serves banquets upstairs and probably does 300 covers a night) and less of an institution than DTF. dinner here was awesome. there was

suan la tang (which chinese-takeouters will recognize as hot & sour soup). insipid versions are so easy to come by. this one has all the depth and complexity that is characteristic of good chinese (and indeed asian) food: a little tangily sour, a little sweet, with nuances of pork, mushroom, possibly seafood and/or chicken, silky ribbons of tofu and shiitake and big hit of umami. but there are those noodles i mentioned:

you take a little of this in your bowl and add

some o’ this (some kind of porky, scalliony saucy thing) on top. or you can get some

barbecued pork to put on another bowl of noodles with an entirely different broth. i could probably call it a day with just the noodles. but we, of course, had to try their xiao long bao and also a different version,

called tang bao, without the pleats on top. any soup dumplings i’ve ever had in new york just don’t cut it at all when compared to these, which are much more delicate and elegant (because the skins are rolled out until translucently thin

and the american ones, like their human counterparts, are 3 times fatter). DSL’s soup dumplings are as good as DTF’s, and i might even prefer the former, since they were kind enough to let me come in the next morning and

yeah, they really do wear these face masks everywhere. even (or especially) when making dumplings. the one major different (besides size) between DSL and DTF is that the dumpling crew at dian shui lou makes their dumplings in a very zen-like, calm and carefully considered fashion, where din tai fung, while they might possibly win speed-wise, have a more hectic, factory pace. the nice guy at DSL (across from me) very patiently showed me how to make the 19 pleats on top (not easy to do at all, as all the pleats must be uniform and both hands must work together to keep the filling in, the margins of the dumpling skin free of filling and the overall shape uniform), which you then tuck into a neat little circle. it’s funny to see the similarities between good cooks across oceans and continents. my teacher was very meticulous with his dumpling-making and placed each one just so in the steamer baskets, shifting or rotating mine just a fraction of a centimeter so that they were in some kind of perfect, planets-and-stars-aligned configuration that was only discernible to him (and maybe the rest of the kitchen — certainly not to me). the whole process of filling and folding these so perfectly is definitely not something you can just pick up in a week or a month, much less a day. mine were pretty ugly, but they were still damn tasty. here’s a final shot of them pulling dough for baozi.

and back in america: few things are sadder than morbidly obese asian kids. (get those chips out o’ yo’ mouth, son, and drop that fried chicken. eat some rice, fer cryin’ out loud.) shudder.


2 Responses to “taiwan: <strong>the dumpling pilgrimage</strong>”

  1. 1 foo January 13, 2006 at 11:21 am

    Did you notice the affinity for greasy American food in Taipei? In most of the food courts, I felt like the longest lines were always at KFC. Now maybe this is a numbers game because there’s aways 20 noodle soup stands and only one stand that serves fried chicken, but still I found it disturbing and perhaps predicting an obesity problem in Asia in 30 years..

  2. 2 A. L. February 10, 2006 at 10:57 am

    I’ve been to the DTF in Arcadia, California. It’s fascinating — the workers behind the glass are an even mix of Asian and Latino.

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