Taiwanese cuisine beats politics any dayCulinary pleasure can distract the minds of the politically inclined.
At the newly opened Din Tai Fung, a famed restaurant chain from Taipei, political topics ― like the recent dispute among Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese governments over who owns the site of the former Taiwanese Embassy ― don’t seem to interest hungry diners. There is often a 20 minute wait for a seat in the 230-seat, two-story restaurant. Reservations are available, but only for two 12-person private rooms, and they’re booked two weeks out.
Din Tai Fung, which means “a large and wholesome pot” in Chinese, gained worldwide recognition in 1993 when the New York Times’ travel section listed it as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants. The original Din Tai Fung on 194 Hsingyi Road in Taipei is a modest building founded in 1958 by Yang Ping-yi. The founder, formerly an errand boy at a small store, learned a new trade making dumplings and simple foods ― what Chinese call “small eats” ―and became well-known in Taiwan by the 1970s. Led by the founder’s eldest son Chi-hua, Din Tai Fung is now a worldwide chain, with many branches in Asia.
The first Din Tai Fung Korea is a joint venture with two local partners, Media Will and Hansol Capital Investment Corporation. The clean and modernized Asian-themed restaurant was designed by the Korean architect Choi Si-young.
The restaurant, I was told, has 60 staff members, of which 33 work in the open kitchen behind the glass panel on the first floor. For the Korean kitchen, eight chefs were dispatched from Taiwan, and 14 Korean chefs were trained in Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung for one year.
Still, can Din Tai Fung retain its original taste far away from its native land? An American expat friend of mine, who has dined at the original Din Tai Fung, wanted to check if Din Tai Fung Korea served the same food. Every time he went to Din Tai Fung in Taipei, his Chinese friends always ordered the same starter, the best-selling steamed chicken soup (5,000 won). So we did the same.
My tablemate said the clear soup, cooked with chunks of chicken, ginger and scallions, and the bowl it came in, looked exactly the same. When he had a spoonful, though, he said it tasted a bit watery.
We soon moved on to the famous shaoling bao, Shanghai-style dumplings (8,000 won), number 11 on the menu, steamed crab meat and pork dumplings (12,500 won), number 12, and steamed shrimp and pork shao mai, Cantonese-style dim sum, (11,500 won), number 14. They quickly arrived steaming hot in bamboo baskets. On the side, we ordered a plate of stir-fried Chinese spinach, no. 3 (5,500 won).
Dishes listed on the top of the menu quickly disappear from the kitchen, which means unlucky diners sometimes must wait half an hour for chefs to make fresh dumplings and cook them. On one occasion, I was lucky to have them all, but on a recent Sunday afternoon they were sold out. My tablemate said this never happens in Taiwan, even if the dishes taste very similar.
All dumplings have uniformly thin and delicate wrappings ― about 21 to 2 millimeters thick and weigh about 5 grams (0.17 ounces), the restaurant says ― and are extremely hot and tender. The fillings are a little fatty but very tasty, made mostly from pork mixed with other ingredients such as crab meat, shrimp or minced vegetables.
The real pleasure of eating comes as one dips each bite into the mixture of shredded ginger, soy sauce and the rare, deliciously rich black vinegar.
To cleanse our palate between dumplings and better digest them, a bottle of Chinese spirits, or “Golden Dragon” Kao Liang Chiew (5,000 won) worked well. It was shockingly powerful, burning my throat at first, but its aromatic floral scent and luscious texture made it quite agreeable with an-hour-long meal and conversation.
If any dish was distinctively Taiwanese, it was fried rice with eggs and pork chop, or no. 43 (7,500 won). Compared with others, the meat is so lean and well marinaded in rich herbal seasoning that even the most sophisticated epicure might mistake the pork for beef.
Din Tai Fung also introduces a number of Chinese desserts including moon cakes and dessert dim sum, but each time, my tablemates and I could not resist eating ALL of our favorite main dishes. That certainly left no space for desserts or neighborhood politics.
Din Tai Fung
English: on the menu, a little spoken.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Location: Next to Central Post Office in Myeongdong.
Parking: Paid parking nearby. The Avatar building near the entrance of Myeongdong, opposite Lotte Department Store is the closest.
Dress code: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho
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