February 5, 2014
Bill Michael is the son of a retired Foreign Service Officer and a retired Foreign Service Officer himself. He has spent a lifetime circling the globe, and speaks German, Spanish, French, and basic Mandarin Chinese. He is happily married and has a five-year old daughter, as well as four grown children. He presently resides in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He makes a mean pepperoni pizza from scratch.
|Image credit: DinTaiFung.com|
One of the attractions of a visit to Taipei is the vast, thriving and thrillingly diverse culinary scene. While the city is becoming more and more cosmopolitan every day, with new hotels and restaurants popping up on the ashes of the old ones, one city mainstay has not only survived the modernization movement but expanded its operations. That would be Din Tai Fung.
To those of you who have traveled extensively in Asia, or who live in Los Angeles, where Din Tai Fung now operates one of its many overseas branches, I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. For the thousands of tourists from Japan and China who make the pilgrimage to Taipei, this is also decidedly not news. For along with the many sights to see in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung is a must-visit destination on any itinerary.
But surprisingly, Din Tai Fung is still a fairly well-kept secret. Starting with one fairly cramped four-story walk-up on Hsin Yi South Road, near the American Institute in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung has been producing and selling the best soup dumplings in the world for many years now. My introduction to their dumplings came in 2002, when I moved to Taipei. A friend took me, and we stood in a queue outside the restaurant for ten or fifteen minutes, waiting for a table, that is how popular they were even then. Although I no longer live in Taiwan, I am fortunate enough to be able to visit at least once a year, and my wife and I put Din Tai Fung on our own itinerary every time we return.
Since the early 2000s, Din Tai Fung has opened many other branches, notably in the massive Sogo Department Store on Zhongxiao East Road, and on the first floor of Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. In spite of the many branches, Din Tai Fung is still, to some degree, a victim of their own success. The day we went we had to wait an hour and forty-five minutes to be seated. Fortunately, since we were in Taipei 101, there was much we could do to kill the time.
The first thing you notice about Din Tai Fung is that their service is exceptional. Even in a country with remarkably good service a given, Din Tai Fung’s service stands out. They have been doing this for awhile, so maybe they have it down to a science, but their service is so good it is almost robotic. Unlike most restaurants, they do not take reservations, so you must simply go, give them your name and party size, and then wait. They have a board which shows the estimated wait and it is pretty much exact, with a margin of error of a few minutes. While you wait, you can already fill out your order card, detailing which items you would like to order. They will take this from you when you are seated, thus getting a jump on the delivery of food to your table. As you enter the joint, you will notice a huge glass wall, behind which labor the dumpling makers. It is a joy to watch them make the dumplings and, if you are so inclined, you can stand there and take pleasure in the process which, in spite of the easy availability of machinery, has not changed much since they were being made for emperors. The secret to soup dumplings is the soup: How do they get soup into a dumpling wrapper, you may ask? Well, they make the filling ahead of time and freeze it into ice cubes. When they are building the dumpling, they insert the ice cube into the dough, pinch the ends together, and then steam the finished dumplings in a wicker steamer basket. They are brought to your table piping hot, in a flourish of steam.
How do you eat a soup dumpling without burning your mouth? There are various suggestions, the most common of which is to take one dumpling with your chopsticks, place it gently into a spoon, bite off a small corner of the dough and allow the soup to leak into the spoon. Then, after a few seconds to let the air cool it, you pop the entire thing into your mouth. Each diner is given a small bowl of shaved ginger strips. You can pour a combination of soy sauce and vinegar into that bowl and then select a few soaked strips of ginger to accompany your bite full of soup dumpling. Either way, you are in for a symphony of taste, whether you chose the regular pork, the vegetarian, the crab, or the prawn. We ordered crab, pork and prawn. They were all terrific. I am not one for finesse, so after a nominal cooling period of about five seconds, I pop the entire dumpling into my mouth.
In addition to the dumplings, we also ordered fried rice with pork chop. The fried rice is tender and tasty, a mild flavor to subtly complement the more prominent flavors of the dumplings. The pork chop was breaded and fried and tender, a perfect accompaniment. We also ordered sweet potato leaves, which came with ostentatious chunks of garlic and red chili pepper and were hot, crunchy and flavorful. The other greens available are just as good. Try the morning glory greens. You will not soon forget them. And don’t forget the hot and sour soup. Although this is a mainstay dish in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung serves what I consider the best hot and sour soup on the island. It is a complex mélange of flavors, each mouthful a feast for the senses.
One of our party had to have the zong zi. For those of you who are unfamiliar, zong zi is glutinous rice with different fillings, usually served in bamboo. It is traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, but you can find it year-round in Taipei. We ordered the zong zi with a succulent roast pork filling. It was mouth-wateringly delicious, smoky and dense. As we were all slowing down at this point, we decided to order dessert dumplings of taro. The taro filling is sweet and moist and oh so filling. Since we ate so late, we decided that we were combining lunch and dinner, so we felt less guilty at the sheer enormity of our meal. But the food was so good that most of us would willingly have stayed until it was time to eat again.
There is much to see and do in Taipei, and it is a shame that it has not garnered more attention from tourists and world travelers around the world. But perhaps that is for the best. I would hate to have to wait even longer the next time I go. Still, if you ever find yourself in the area, wondering whether you might want to squeeze in a trip to Taipei, go see the beautiful and fascinating sights this wonderful island has to offer, but try to take at least one meal at Din Tai Fung. You will not regret it.
(All images from the menu of Din Tai Fung website: Soup Dumplings, Hot and Sour Soup, Taro Dessert Dumplings)