Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Taipei (Part 3)

January 2

This was my last day in Taipei, and I was particularly excited for two reasons: one, I was going to meet a former Taiwanese graduate student of my father, and two, this man and his wife would be taking me to Xinyi Road to have lunch at the original DinTaiFung, a restaurant that the New York Times ranked as one of the top ten in the world in 1993. Since then, and partly because of that well publicized ranking, DinTaiFung has enjoyed increased exposure and renown, and now has restaurants all over the world.

It's never NOT crowded at DinTaiFung. We had to wait ninety minutes to get in, and the entranceway was still packed when we left at three o'clock.

Since they took our order while we waited, once we got seated our food arrived almost immediately. We started with a lightly sauteed cabbage, which is famous in Taiwan for being grown at a high elevation where much of the island's tea is cultivated, and spinach sauteed with garlic. This was followed by two small bowls of soup: black chicken soup, which had a rich broth and very tender meat, and a thick soup made from tofu, eggs, minced vegetables, and blood cake, which I found interesting for its subtly sour flavor.

Lightly sauteed cabbage

Garlic and sauteed spinach

Black chicken soup

Thick soup with tofu, eggs, minced veggies, and blood cake

But the showstoppers at DinTaiFung are their steamed buns, or xiaolongbao, which the owners -- a married couple -- have been making for more than fifty years. Their xiaolongbao are known for the technique by which they're made as well as their artistry: each bun, for example, has the exact same number of folds as every other bun made there. The buns themselves are made from very thin flour, and the steaming process cooks the juices out of whatever they're filled with so that when you bite into them you're also getting what amounts to a steaming hot broth.

From left to right: pork, crab, and veggie steamed buns

We ordered three savory types of buns -- pork, crab, and minced vegetables -- that we immediately tucked into before they cooled down, stuck to the bottom layer of cloth on which they sat, and became impossible to lift to our mouths without tearing open and spilling their contents. I, of course, was the only one who managed to tear open his xiaolongbao, and I did it at least half the time I tried to pick one up and set it in my long plastic spoon to eat.

The guts of a veggie dumpling

I'm not at all expert on steamed buns, but what I can say about these is that they were very satisfying -- not the least bit greasy, and very light in taste, with each type that we ordered flavorful with ingredients such as ginger and onion.

Rice and red bean cake

Our main course was followed by a very strange looking confection -- a steamed rice cake studded with red beans and decorated on top with droplets of red and green gelatin. It looked quite dry, but it was actually very moist. The red beans gave the steamed cake all the sweetness that it needed, and although it looked airy it was surprisingly heavy. Not as heavy as a doubled layered black forest cake, but it still had a deceptively light appearance.

Taro dumpling

My favorite bun, however, was definitely the taro xiaolongbao. This dessert bun was much sweeter than the cake, and the taro filling was so deliciously creamy that, had our order included triple the number of buns that we got, I would have had no problem whatsoever finishing them off. I can still taste them, and although I live in a place where taro is widely consumed, I'm sure that trying to find an equal to them in Hawaii will be next to impossible. But I'm going to try. And knowing me, if I do find their equal here, I will rejoice by eating two hundred of them in one sitting.

Dumpling making is serious business at DinTaiFung

DinTaiFung (http://www.dintaifungusa.com/en/en_index.html) has branches in Los Angeles, Seoul, Singapore, Jakarta, Hong Kong, and in cities throughout China and Japan. The restaurant I went to is located at No. 194 Xinyi Road Sec. 2 (on the corner of Yunkang Street) in Taipei. Their telephone number is (02) 2321-8928. They're open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Monday - Friday, and from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturdays and public holidays.

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  1. This was a serious exercise in vicarious dining for me! I'm fascinated by the xiaolongbao - in this day and age, achieving that kind of consistency in food is often left to precisely-calibrated machines. I certainly hope that the couple have rigorously trained their apprentices - I can't imagine losing that kind of treasure!

  2. And that kind of consistency, combined with world renown, usually results in an astronomically priced menu. But it was very affordable! (Actually, I didn't pay...but I saw what everything cost on the menu.) But you're absolutely right, Noodle. I also think that in Taiwan people more commonly view food in terms of tradition and artistry, in addition to taste, than we do here in the U.S. Thanks for the comment!

  3. ooo, ding tai fung! I have yet to try their famous xiao long baos. Maybe someday when i gather enough courage to wait in a 90 min cue, muahaha. Great pics!

  4. Anjelikuh: The "good" things about the wait are: 1) you get to place your order ahead of time, 2) there's a decent bookstore next to DinTaiFung, and 3) there's an amazing teashop nearby, too (and you can bring your tea into DTF). I only tried a small portion of their menu, and I can't wait to give more of their dishes a try. You should definitely make a point to eat there if you have the chance. And -- muahaha -- be sure to order taro dumplings!

  5. I enjoy much your post. Really miss the place and the feeling of queueing outside for ur turn to get in the restaurant. Been there any time I went to Taipei. So bad I didnt take pics because the different steamed buns attracted my concentration la ;-) Thanks for your pics too ^^