On the Trail of the Shanghai Dumpling
Patricia Unterman follows the legendary xiao long bao on its global route from Taiwan to California.
A harried waiter slaps onto our table a bamboo steamer with eight small dumplings nestled coyly inside. I carefully lift one with the sides of my chopsticks onto a flat Chinese spoon, sprinkle it with mild, black Chinkiang vinegar and a few ginger threads, and take a tiny bite out of its noodle-like wrapper. Rich, searing hot juice gushes out—a surge of intense broth, a pure meat essence that mysteriously feels light on the tongue, like my grandmother’s best chicken soup times 10. Then I polish off the velvety pork meatball and the resilient yet gossamer skin. The flavors explode in my mouth. It’s a culinary thrill ride. I’ve eaten scores of different dumplings all over Asia, but nothing comes close to these, my first xiao long bao: tender, dainty, Shanghai soup dumplings. Where have these been all my life?
The site of this glorious epiphany is Din Tai Fung, a wildly popular restaurant in a developing commercial district about a 30-minute drive west of central Shanghai. My guide is food maven Cecilia Chiang, whose nose for the tastiest morsels on the planet remains undiminished in her eighth decade. She is no stranger to long journeys and challenging quests. In 1943, she and her sister walked, half starved, 2,500 miles across China ahead of the Japanese occupation. In the early 1960s, after immigrating to San Francisco, California, she opened one of the first Mandarin Chinese restaurants in the United States. In Shanghai in 2003, however, we have only to hail a cab to get to the home of the ultimate soup dumpling.
China’s cities and villages are full of dumpling joints, usually scruffy stalls that open directly onto sidewalks or lanes. By contrast, Din Tai Fung, situated in a modern mall, is a sleek restaurant with comfortable booths, caricatures of Asian entertainers—presumably patrons—sketched directly on the walls, and an English-language menu. Dozens of white-coated cooks work in a display kitchen, pulling and pleating half-dollar-size circles of dough around large pink balls of ground pork. An impatient all-Asian crowd jockeys on the sidewalk out front. Word has spread about Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao—steamed dumplings from Shanghai perfected by a business that started in Taiwan.
These first life-changing dumplings would set me on a six-year quest, taking me to the dumpling’s birthplace outside Shanghai; to the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei; and, surprisingly, to suburban Southern California.
The Birthplace: Nanxiang, 2005
Legend has it that xiao long bao first appeared around 1875 in Nanxiang, a village on the northwestern outskirts of Shanghai. After an hour-long cab ride from the center of China’s largest city, I arrive at Nanxiang’s Guyi public garden, designed by the famous bamboo carver Zhu Sansong in the 16th century for a wealthy official. The ponds are now trimmed in bamboo-patterned concrete, but stands of living bamboo and handsome old trees grow along the curving paths. The breathy sound of a traditional Chinese flute wafts from a newly built pavilion. Paddleboats nose around the edges of a small man-made lake. Children run ecstatically in the playground; parents push babies in swings. Brides and grooms pose strategically for photographers on bridges and pathways.
Near the entrance, on the wall of the large state-run Guyi Garden Restaurant, a big, bright-red plaque with gold letters screams, MING DYNASTY ORIGINAL XIAO LONG BAO. More than a century ago, the story goes, a local baker came up with the idea of offering these juicy little dumplings as a snack near the garden. Today, the teahouse—festively decorated with red lanterns and tall, ornately carved sliding front doors—is a popular family destination. I watch a matriarch stake out a choice location at a round communal table while a designated family member goes to the wooden counter to place the group’s order and pay the clerk. A server brings huge bamboo steamers of dumplings almost instantly. Everyone digs in and the dumplings disappear in a flash, along with many cups of tea. To keep up with demand, I learn, the cooks in the kitchen form and steam the dumplings ahead of time and hold them at the ready. The price is right: 20 for about one U.S. dollar. I would think these were fine—if the standard hadn’t been set by the xiao long bao I’d eaten at Din Tai Fung. I realize that someday I must visit the Din Tai Fung mother ship in Taiwan.
A Din Tai Fung Pilgrimage: Taipei, 2009
On Xinyi Road in Taipei, a mostly Japanese crowd mills around outside a narrow four-story structure. A mile or so east stands the world’s second-tallest building, Taipei 101. The pilgrims here are taking cell phone photos of a different sort of landmark—the first Din Tai Fung Dumpling House. The Japanese occupied Taiwan for 50 years, until the end of World War II, and close cultural and commercial ties remain: The Taiwanese developed a taste for Japanese food, and the Japanese adore xiao long bao. Many Japanese visit Taiwan just to eat at the original Din Tai Fung. On this day, they make up a good portion of the devotees who fill every seat in the culinary shrine.
Din Tai Fung Dumpling House was started by Yang Bingyi and his wife, Penmei Lai, in 1969. They did not set out to become restaurateurs. Born in Shanxi province in northeastern China in 1927, Yang worked as a supply clerk for an uncle in the Nationalist army. As the Kuomintang state disintegrated amidst inflation and a mounting civil war, Yang worried that he would be targeted as a Communist informant. He emigrated from the mainland when he was 21. According to the family story, another uncle bought him a ferry ticket, and Yang landed in Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor in 1948 without a yuan. Through an aunt, Yang found a job making deliveries for the Heng Tai Feng cooking oil company. His future wife, Penmei Lai, worked as a clerk in the oil shop. The couple married in 1955, and a few years later, when the Heng Tai Feng business failed, the Yangs opened their own bulk cooking oil store and called it Din Tai Fung.
“In the 1960s Taiwan got supermarkets. House wives could buy oil in bottles, so my dad’s business dropped off,” explains 49-year-old Frank Yang, one of Yang Bingyi’s five children. “To increase their income, my mother started to make some little bites to eat in the shop. People started coming in.” His parents were not professional cooks, Frank Yang notes, but there were plenty to be found. A whole generation of skilled Chinese chefs, trained by masters in the kitchens of wealthy families and government officials, left the mainland after the Communist takeover in 1949. A second wave left China in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, when virtually every manifestation of traditional Chinese culture came under attack. Taiwan became a repository for the best dishes of China.
“Since my dad delivered oil to all the major restaurants, he met a lot of chefs and restaurant owners,” Frank Yang says. “He hired a chef from Anhui who knew how to make xiao long bao. In those days, there were no recipes. There were no scales. No formula. You just watched for six months, did the dirty work in the kitchen, and finally the chef might let you touch the dough.”
The Yangs’ chef had a gambling habit that interfered with his job. “My mom had watched him work,” Yang says. “She was very intelligent and adept. When the chef stopped showing up, my mom stepped in. The chef had taught a few apprentices the techniques for making dumplings, and we all learned how to make xiao long bao from the apprentices.”
Gradually, Din Tai Fung’s delicate, juicy steamed dumplings attracted a following. More and more customers found their way to the storefront on Xinyi Street. When the Yangs started selling xiao long bao, the family lived upstairs from the oil shop. In the early 1970s, business picked up to the point that they quit selling oil, committed themselves full-time to the restaurant, and bought a house around the corner on Yungkang Street. The Yangs expanded the restaurant to the second floor above the original storefront. They rented out the top two floors of the building to students until Din Tai Fung became so popular that all four floors were needed for the restaurant.
In the early 1990s, Din Tai Fung’s growing reputation caught the attention of the Taipei branch manager of the Tokyo-based Takashimaya department store. In October 1996, Din Tai Fung opened its first overseas operation, in the Takashimaya in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Apprentices who had worked for years at the original shop were sent to Japan to supervise the restaurant. The following year, Yang Chi-hua, Yang Bingyi’s oldest son, brought in investment partners, and new Japanese branches opened in rapid succession in Yokohama, Kumamoto, and Nagoya. Even when the original Din Tai Fung kitchen in Taipei was making thousands of dumplings daily, the recipe was not quantified. But in 2000, Din Tai Fung built an enormous central kitchen in Zonghe City, southwest of Taipei, for the processing and storage of raw ingredients to be distributed to branch restaurants. The development of uniform measurements and techniques allowed for the accelerated expansion that has put nearly four dozen Din Tai Fung restaurants in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and the United States.
During my visit to the original Din Tai Fung, a hostess directed me past the glassed-in kitchen, bustling with cooks wearing surgical masks, to the third floor. An expertly made-up young woman in a navy blue suit greeted me, piloted me through the photographically illustrated menu, and relayed my order to the kitchen. The food came too quickly. The relatively expensive xiao long bao (10 for $9.30 U.S.) weren’t quite hot enough. I requested a second batch hot, and they arrived hot, which is critical to the magical impact of the broth, an effect I remembered from the Shanghai shop.
Still, I was mildly shocked. I had harbored such high expectations for the mother ship that even close-to-perfect soup dumplings were a letdown.
An Unlikely Homecoming: California, 2009
In 2000, after opening four branches in Japan, the Yangs opened a Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Southern California. I had followed the dumpling trail from Shanghai to Taipei, and one last leg of the journey remained—a visit to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. I flew down from San Francisco. My son, who lives in L.A., drove me all the way across town on clogged freeways. We finally got to a nondescript Asian shopping center—home to a bank, a gift store selling cheap Asian imports, a bakery, a nail salon—just in time to take one of the last numbers for a table at Din Tai Fung. It was hot, and the place was closing in half an hour. There was still a line outside the door. I navigated my way through the crowd to look into the open kitchen, a Din Tai Fung trademark. Twenty guys were turning out dumplings one by one as fast as they could. They were all Latino. I couldn’t believe it. I’d endured a miserable crawl across Los Angeles with a whining son for this—Shanghai dumplings pounded out by cooks who probably had never even tasted one before they punched in for the job. After a reassuring wait, the first steamer arrived and the dumplings looked perfect—fragile, almost translucent, with the right shape. I bit into one and voluptuous broth flowed out, blistering hot, just the way it should be. The pork ball was meltingly tender and the noodle wrapper diaphanous, with no fewer than 18 pleats.
These transplanted Shanghai dumplings (10 for $7.25)—beloved by Japanese and made by Central Americans in a Los Angeles outpost of a 30-year-old Taiwanese operation founded by a man from northern China—turned out to be some of the best xiao long bao of all. The blissful taste memories of my first experience flooded back. I inhaled the dumplings, as did my son, who forgave me for all the inconvenience as soon as he slurped up his first. I was struck by the global irony of it all. I chased a dumpling around China for six years only to find the ideal example in a suburban shopping mall in Southern California. But the journey was inevitable. If I hadn’t been seduced in Shanghai, I never would have found xiao long bao in my own backyard. A
How to Eat Xiao Long Bao
1. Gently pick up the dumpling by using the sides of your chopsticks, not the points, so you don’t puncture the wrapper. Place it on a flat-bottomed Chinese soup spoon.
2. Using your chopsticks, top the dumpling with some ginger threads. Pour on a little vinegar from the saucer.
3. Raise the spoon to your mouth and take a tiny bite of the wrapper with your teeth, or use your chopsticks to tear a small hole. Breathe in cool air as you suck in all of the hot juice from the dumpling.
4. Eat and savor the wrapper and the meaty filling. —PU
Photographs by Trujillo Paumier. This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.