I hate people who are not serious about their meals. -- Oscar Wilde

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Taiwan Dispatch: Din Tai Fung: Soup Dumplings Nirvana

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: Soup Dumplings is a perfect cure for Jet lag, or at least make your forget how tired you are.

Din Tai Fung Menu

I am going away next Friday and to get in the travel mood and spirit, I am going to start posting up stuff from my last travel excursion to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan back in November 2010 during Thanksgiving, which would generally make me angry because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I love celebrating the survival of a  bunch of uptight white folks. Oh yes, I also like cooking and eating Thanksgiving food, I am the loser that starts planning Thanksgiving when November comes around, I do not joke about Thanksgiving. So missing Thanksgiving and being in Taiwan would generally end with Hulk-like anger but after the initial shock and a 15 second moment of grief, I came to terms with it and knew this was just as good, if not better and 70 degree weather helped as well. Besides, I can smoke a turkey when I get home. 

I have a love and hate relationship with this country; I hated it when I was younger because I could not stand the whole day flight and then dealing with family members. They could not speak English and I had elementary Chinese skills at best and they could never pronounce my name. The name is Joseph or Joe, not “Johnson” or “Jetson”. However, like my culinary knowledge, as I grew up and learned more about Taiwan and food, it just took some time to become aware and embrace all that Taiwan has to offer and realized that this was a haven and a must destination for a serious eater. 

So to start off on what I call the Taiwan Dispatch (calling it a “dispatch” makes it sound 10x more exotic and exciting) I am going to start of with the beginning of the trip and the first thing I ate. Well, not really the first thing I ate but the first meal I had in Taiwan after not going back in about 6 years. Well, the first thing I had was a coffee and a stroopwafel at a Starbucks, which by the way, their “venti” is smaller than the American “venti” so we are either they are getting ripped off or we are making out I don’t know. Anybody that wants to fund this research and send me back to Taiwan for uhh research and study feel free to contact me.

This guy is like 10x cooler than Ronald McDonald

If the first meal in any place defines a trip, then I was going to eating like a king…like King Henry VIII who ate like everything. Even before we checked into our hotel room, we went to Sogo, a Japanese mall to the eat at the ever popular Din Tai Fung. First thing to note is that this mall food court is nothing compared to your local mall. If you think having a Cinnabon and a Sabarros was the pinnacle of mall cuisine, then you are out of luck here. It is like the food hall at Harrods in London and probably based off of that. There are bakeries pumping out fresh and tasty bread, specialty cakes and cookies, Korean barbeques, noodles everywhere and you can even get a steak dinner here. So it comes no surprise that there is a Din Tai Fung here. 

Food galore after the jump
For the non-food nerds/geeks/losers, Din Tai Fung is restaurant that specializes in dumplings and are most notable for their, soup dumplings (xiaolongbao for the ping ying) and is one of the few places that has earned a Michelin Star for the Hong Kong/Asia edition. Although it is grown into a semi-chain restaurant it is not like a Crapplebees, in which the quality and craft of the food is still of the highest standard and consistent. Each soup dumpling or the various other dumpling offerings and food is hand made. So all those crazy folds that you see on the soup dumpling, is done by a guy in the back all day Soup dumplings are unique because when you bite into it, not only are you greeted by a meaty filling, but soup as well making it a unique experience and for the uninitiated, a painful experience of having searing hot soup burn your mouth and dribble all over you. How do they get the soup in the soup dumplings one may ask? Unfortunately, there is not Ferran Adria molecular stuff going on here: the broth is gelatinized, frozen and they scoop up a small bit of it and stuff it into the meat filling. As it steams and cooks, the broth melts and you have soup in said soup dumpling. I guess this is the original molecular food?

In Taiwan there are a couple of locations, and most of them are mobbed by tourist that comes in by the busload. We went to the one in the Sogo, in the Fuxing district which is quieter and there are still a good amount of people but manageable. Also it helps when you go there when it opens, minimizing any wait or virtually none at all.

Cucumbers dressed with light soy and sesame oil (excuse the blurriness, I guess it is the jet lag groggy effect)
Obviously, the main attraction was the soup dumplings, but there have a lot of other great offerings as well. We started with something light, cucumbers dressed in a light soy type of vinaigrette and sesame oil with chili flakes. It looked deceptively plain and boring but the cucumbers were clean and refreshing and tantalized the mouth. It was a nice light way to start off the meal.

Wontons swimming in a pool of spicy goodness. Great sinus clearer 

Other things that we had were the wontons in chili oil which is one of my favorites. The composition is boiled wontons, filled with pork and Chinese chives that are then dosed with dried and fresh chilies, chili oil (as if not enough chilies) and sesame oil. If you can’t stand the heat, well it stinks to be you because this is one of my favorites. The spiciness hits you after digestion which makes it easy for it to sneak up on you, the oil fusion and the dumplings made natural to just pop them in your mouth quickly and this ambush of heat will most likely give you that heat in the back of your throat and result in you getting some chili coughs. The chilies are gritty which in this case goes well with the oiliness and slippery wontons overall making this a spicy bowl of goodness. 

 Dan Dan Mein

No Taiwan trip can be complete without trying or eating Dan Dan Mein or in non-pingying, sesame noodles. This is a dish that is highly debated on who has the best around and this would not be the first time I would be sampling and eating Dan Dan Mein (by the way, Dan Dan Mein at 8 in the morning after a 3 mile run, great energy booster!). The main ingredients in Dan Dan noodles are sesame, pickled vegetables (generally mustard greens), ground pork/chicken bits, chili/chili oil and the most essential element, Sichuan peppercorns. The Dan Dan Noodles at Din Tai Fung were on the average side. the noodles had the chewiness you look for, but the Dan Dan sauce was not all the way there and you mainly could only taste the sesame, but did not capture the essence and the tantalizing flavors you get from Sichuan peppercons and the other ingredients. Not bad but not mind blowing.

Hot and Sour Soup- MOM YOU RUINED THE PICTURE (blurry shot due to parental food greediness)
The Hot and Sour Soup was one of the best Hot and Sour soups I have had to date. Most Hot and Sour soups that have encountered were overtly, gravy consistency that looks like a bastardized version of an egg drop soup with brown coloring and vinegar. This however was properly thickened to a smooth consistency and the tofu and bamboo were diced to uniform perfection. The acidity of the soup was perfect; it crept onto your palate, instantly satisfying.

Soup Dumplings, perfect bites of goodness
The soup dumplings were brought out in the traditional bamboo basket and opening the lid you are greeted to a steam facial and aroma of the dumplings. There is a method of eating this without destroying your mouth and looking like a complete mess (amateur). The goal is to drink the soup in the dumpling. If you spill the soup or waste it somehow before consumption, everyone will laugh at you. The waitress will too, and she will do it in that weird Asian schoolgirl giggle where they cover their mouths, embarrassing you more. So don’t mess this up.
The most popular way is that you gently pick up the dumpling with your chopsticks and place it on spoon, using the spoon as a stable platform and to ensure that not a single drop of soup will be lost. The skin of the soup dumpling is delicate and taunt, so carefully, bite a small hole into the skin of the dumpling, and they carefully, suck out the soup. The soup will be a meaty rich and slightly sweet broth, which makes you crave for more. It is like eating a potato chip, you can not just eat one, once you get that satisfying taste, and you just want more of it. It hits the spot and is a gratifying experience.

Extracting the soup was the hard part now the rest of eating a soup dumpling is a breeze. The soup dumplings are served with black vinegar and ginger, which cuts the richness of this small package that is perfectly constructional and in synced. We had 2 types of soup dumplings, the original pork soup dumplings and the pork and crab dumplings. The addition of crab accentuates the pork with its brine-y flavor teetering on being too rich to handle.
 Steamed Pork and Leek Dumplings, look at those folds!

Changing it up, we got regular pork and Chinese leek dumplings which were steamed and wrapped in a rice wrapper that is the same used for making har gow, the shrimp dumplings popular in dim sum. Chinese leeks differ from the American kind that the sweetness is more subtle but has more grassiness and stronger onion-like flavors to it that plays perfect with pork.

 Inside shot of the Pork and leek Dumpling

Din Tai Fung is a tourist magnet and I see it sometimes as the same as going to Katz Deli or the Shake Shack. However, like the former listed restaurants, there is a reason they are popular because the food is good and keeps locals and tourists coming back for more. Din tai Fung is a representation of how seriously food is taken in Asia and specifically Taiwan. The precision from the right thickness of the skin, to the multiple folds on the dumpling is a testament to the obsession that Taiwan and many Asian countries share on food. The flavors represent the practice of balance and working the ying and yang especially in food and the cumulating of all these parts comes together in one perfect dumpling.

So cute but look so tasty, THIS CONFUSES ME!

Din Tai Fung 
B2F., No.300, Sec. 3, Zhongxiao E. Rd.,
Da-an District, Taipei City 10654, Taiwan

No comments:

Post a Comment