Imagine a perfectly seasoned ball of juicy pork encased in a light-as-air steamed wrapping of dough. Imagine deftly picking up this dreamy white dumpling with your chopsticks and popping it in your mouth. Now – imagine as your teeth are sinking into the outer casing, a burst of warm porky broth, mingling with the pork as you chew, making magic in your mouth. That, my friends, is a Xiao Long Bao (steamed soup dumpling) in the legendary restaurant chain Din Tai Fung.
During my first few months in Singapore, I tried several different kinds of dumplings. Some were greasy, some too dry, and others were just all right. Then, one sunny afternoon, I walked into Din Tai Fung and there was no looking back.
Din Tai Fung is a chain with restaurants all over the world – in Singapore itself it has 19 different locations. They are almost always full and you have to wait a few minutes before you’re seated. While you wait though, there is entertainment (if that is, like me, you find watching chefs at work quite the highest form of entertainment there could possibly be). Most Din Tai Fung restaurants have, facing the entrance, a kitchen with glass walls so you can look in at the pristinely dressed and fabulously masterful chefs at work. I usually hang around there more than they’d want, but these chefs are something like culinary Buckingham Palace guards – nothing you can do can distract them from the job at hand (believe me, I’ve tried.) You will be rapt, watching their fingers move deftly from dough to filling, wrapping up those dreamy dumplings with a deft swipe or two.
The menu is usually fixed (no specials) and comes to you on a sheet of paper where you tick off everything you want. What you just have to order every time is the signature steamed Xiao Long Bao (steamed soup dumpling). All the variants are delicious but my favourite is the classic steamed pork. You can order the 6-piece or 10-piece, but I always get the 10 (and then another).
There are 2 ways to eat a Xiao Long Bao to really experience it in all its glory. The first one is simpler, but requires some patience on your part. Since each one is filled with potentially hot soup, you just wait for a few minutes for it to cool, then pick up one with chopsticks and put the whole thing in your mouth. Given the circumstances and the basket of dumplings staring back at you, this is a tough task. The second way (my preferred method) requires less patience but more skill. Pick up the dumpling with chopsticks and holding it over a soup spoon, take a small bite out of one corner. Proceed to drain the hot soup into the soupspoon and then eat the rest of dumpling with the (now cooler) soup. For either method, remember to put some soy-soaked ginger on top of the dumpling before devouring it – I love the gingery saltiness it adds.
The pork and shrimp Xiao Long Bao, and the crabmeat and shrimp Xiao Long Bao are also excellent. Order some stir-fried greens with garlic or pork – I find that it goes well in between mouthfuls of dumplings. The Dou Miao or pea sprouts are my favourite because they are a gorgeous bright green and have a delicate sweetness to them. You’re served complimentary bottomless Chinese tea, but if you want to go the cold route try the Lemongrass juice – it’s fresh, lemony and slightly sweet. I love that they put a ball of frozen juice in so your drink stays cold without becoming diluted. Wind down Chinese-style (they eat their rice/noodles as the last course) with the Shrimp and egg fried rice – plump grains of rice which hold their own, dotted with bright yellow strings of yolk and baby pink shrimp.
On a recent work trip to Taiwan I had the good fortune of eating at the very first Din Tai Fung restaurant that ever was. There is something to be said about a flagship restaurant – everything just tastes better. After queuing to get in for about 30 minutes, we were led up several stairs to the 3rd level-dining area. We ordered most of the items I’ve eaten before, but I have to say I felt they tasted even better in Taiwan (perhaps it was just the excitement of being in a new country!) For dessert I tried something I hadn’t eaten before – a red-bean paste fried dumpling. It was crispy on the outside with a smoky, smooth and sweet red bean filing. It appears to me that Din Tai Fung does not disappoint – it doesn’t matter where in the world you try it. The next time you’re in Singapore, eat some Xiao Long Bao and tell me if you agree!