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Monday, January 19, 2009

How to eat steamed dumplings and other food adventures

I can't think of a better way to put my limited Mandarin to use than to order my first meal in Taiwan. The only problem is I don't know what to order! Chris and I followed our noses to a small hole-in-the-wall place, where someone was grilling what appeared to be tofu and rolled omelettes. There was a lot pointing, motioning and shrugging going on until we settled on a fried egg and hot tea. Not being enough to sustain us, we ordered more. This time, Chris was able to order pot stickers (guo tie) and the "cong you bing" or spring-onion pancake (my favorite!).

We didn't have to work so hard for our food at lunchtime, however. A college friend, John Eastwood--who now lives in Taipei--invited us to join him at a Taiwanese institution, Din Tai Fung. This restaurant, which has other locations throughout Asia and even one in the U.S. (Los Angeles), is quite famous for its "Xiao Long Bao," known in the west as steamed dumplings. On his TV show, "No Reservations," Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the dumplings to be the best on earth when he visited in 2003. According to the Taipei Times, "He had nothing but high praise for the restaurant, especially when it came to the joint's 'incredible' crab dumplings."

As we waited for a seat--the place was packed--we watched the dumplings being made by a group of men we dubbed "the dumpling gang." The masked men looked more like doctors performing surgery in their head-to-toe white garb, surgical masks and gloves. Whether mixing the dough, rolling it out, stuffing it with a variety of different fillings, pinching the dough together and placing it in the steam basket, each one of the employees had a critical job to perform.

But, nothing was more important than savoring these treats and we readily set to the task. The dumplings come with instructions for the uninitiated:

1. Mix soy sauce and vinegar in the dish supplied with fresh ginger slices. They suggest a ration of 1 portion of soy sauce to 3 portions of vinegar.

2. With chopsticks, grasp the dumpling and dip it in the sauce.

3. Place the dumpling on the provided spoon. Using your chopsticks, carefully poke a small hole in the dumpling to release the hot broth inside.

4. Place some ginger on the dumpling and eat together with the broth.

We repeated these steps over and over until all the steam baskets were empty and we were ready for a nap.

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