It may seem ungracious of me to write this, living as I do in London where restaurants are opening at a faster rate than in any other city, but the news just in from Taipei, Taiwan, is extremely exciting. Those who control the franchise for the exceptional Din Tai Fung restaurants are planning to open here.
For those who have not yet eaten in one of the 112 branches of this restaurant that first opened in Taiwan in 1980 but has today spread across Asia, over to the West Coast of the USA and, most recently, into Australia, let me explain my enthusiasm for their Shanghai dumplings in particular.
These large restaurants are run to the highest standards of hygiene and service. They are great fun for families and groups of friends of any age, although less suitable perhaps for a romantic night out. They offer great value. They appeal to anyone who enjoys Chinese food in a relaxed environment. As a result they are addictive – hence my growing need for an outpost less than an overnight flight away.
And all this because Din Tai Fung’s founder, Yang Bingy, was forced out of his original business as a cooking-oil vendor when tinned cooking oil became available and began, with his wife Lai Penmei, to serve xiaolongbao, steamed Shanghai dumplings with their traditional filling of minced pork and just the right amount of nourishing stock. Their family fortune has evolved from this one dish, often referred to as soup dumplings, and an awful lot of hard work.
Over the intervening years, of course, a great deal of pleasure has been given to millions of customers as well. Their sales of all the dumplings that are xiaolongbao in shape, whether filled with the traditional pork filling or chicken or pork and crab roe, are a staggering 2,300,000 per month.
These are dumplings that require an extraordinary amount of precise, repetitive, demanding and nifty handiwork. They also represent the dish on any restaurant menu where the ratio between the time it takes to prepare them and the time it takes to enjoy them is unquestionably the greatest. The only delay for the customer is the vital waiting time required to let them cool down slightly once they have been served in the bamboo steamer. Burnt mouths would otherwise ensue.
The dumplings have to follow certain precise standards and those who make them in restaurants other than Din Tai Fung tend to follow the norms that they have laid down. The filling has to weigh 16 grams; the case another 5 grams; and the precise circumference is 6.5 cm. Most crucially, and most challengingly, as I found when I tried to prepare my first Shanghai dumpling, there must be 18 pleats around the top of the dumpling. Then a pinch of flour is added and the dumplings laid to rest before they are ordered and finished by spending four minutes in the steamer.
All of this is very cleverly on show at the newer branches of Din Tai Fung. When I ate at their Shanghai branch a year ago I stood transfixed, as did many others waiting for a table at 7 pm on a Sunday evening, in the reception area that was surrounded by glass windows that overlooked one production area. Here were teams of young Chinese men and women, dressed entirely in white with white hats and masks over their mouths, rolling the dough, filling the dumplings, and stacking the waiting baskets.
But the aspects of production that are on show are merely the final, and most visually appealing, of making these dumplings. To get an appreciation of the whole process I travelled, in the absence of a ticket to Taipei, to the kitchen of Andrew Wong’s restaurant, a five-minute walk from Victoria Station, where they make xiaolongbao modelled on the Din Tai Fung’s recipe (pictured above by Charlie Bibby).
Here Anna and Rose make 150 to 200 dumplings twice a day, a process that takes a couple of hours depending on the weather, which has a direct effect on the elasticity of the dough.
Anna was standing by a plastic bowl that contained the filling that was the amalgam of two different cooking processes. The first was a thick, white jelly-like substance that was the final distillation of the stock that has to be made 12 hours in advance. This stock is made from pork bones, lots of pigskin to impart the collagen that, as it breaks down, thickens the stock, ginger, spring onions and water. This cooks for five to six hours, is filtered and left to cool. It is then blended with a mixture of minced pork, seasoning, soy, rice wine and sesame oil to produce the final filling.
The dough is rolled, cut, and then rolled once more into circles with the edges thin but the centre left somewhat thicker as this is the part directly above the steam. Anna takes the circle in her left hand, adds the filling and then with her right hand starts pinching the top to make the vital 18 pleats.
At £1.50, steamed so that the jelly is converted into the magical soup inside the dumpling, these are served with a dipping sauce of red-wine vinegar and a julienne of ginger. Here too, as Din Tai Fung have proved so successfully, ‘everyone loves them’ according to Nathalie Wong.
A Wong 70 Wilton Road, Victoria, London SW1V 1DE