In dumpling par­adise

It takes sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion to make the per­fect xiao long bao, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - INDULGENCE -

THE world’s best dumplings have ar­rived in Syd­ney and this breath­less claim has been en­dorsed by the likes of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can celebrity chef Ken Hom and Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial au­thor and gal­lop­ing gourmet An­thony Bour­dain. The queues are long the frosty night we ar­rive at Din Tai Fung on level one of the World Square Shop­ping Cen­tre at the south­ern end of Syd­ney’s Ge­orge Street, par­al­lel to the Chi­na­town precinct. It’s a good lo­cale for a Chi­nese dumpling house: there are soar­ing of­fice and apart­ment blocks and plenty of peo­ple stream­ing in and out of cine­mas and late-open­ing shops.

In the glass-walled kitchen, which we can see from the fast-mov­ing queue, it looks as if surgery is tak­ing place, al­beit as­sisted by gusts of steam. An episode of some med­i­cal drama, per­haps, in which a bat­tal­ion of white-capped, gowned and masked sur­geons has been called in for a par­tic­u­larly com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure.

The op­er­a­tion, how­ever, is not a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion: it’s work­ers en­gaged in the art of dumpling­mak­ing ac­cord­ing to the pre­cise re­quire­ments of Din Tai Fung founder Yang Ji­hua. The xiao long bao, or pork dumplings, must have 1g of dough, 16g of pork with reg­u­la­tion sea­son­ings of spring onion and ginger, and 18 folded pleats. And make that an ex­act 18, please; the num­ber of folds must be as per­fect as each dumpling’s shape and weight.

Lit­tle jew­eller’s scales are used to weigh each mon­ey­bag-shaped dumpling and they must be be­tween 4.8g and 5.2g; ear­lier in the process, a lit­tle round glass tem­plate is used to en­sure each disc of dough is ex­actly 6cm in di­am­e­ter.

Yang is from Taipei, where the ex­pand­ing Din Tai Fung chain has its head­quar­ters. His fa­ther, Yang Bingyi, had a busi­ness sell­ing cook­ing oil that even­tu­ally trans­formed into a home-style food stall in 1958, then a

Full steam ahead: A suit­ably masked kitchen­hand at Syd­ney’s Din Tai Fung mod­est restau­rant, where Yang learned how to cook.

His fam­ily soon fig­ured there was a mar­ket for spe­cialised com­fort food such as dumplings.

The Syd­ney branch is the 41st world­wide and the first in Aus­tralia, and it has def­i­nitely cre­ated a buzz since its July open­ing. The em­pire has spread its reach to Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore, Hong Kong, main­land China, Los An­ge­les and sev­eral cities in Europe. That’s hun­dreds of thou­sands of dumplings a day, each one steamed for three min­utes on the dot in bam­boo steam­ers lined with muslin, in­stead of the usual cab­bage leaf of the Chi­nese home kitchen. In Syd­ney, it’s a big, brightly lit space with ac­cents of lucky red, slate tiles, plain wooden ta­bles (some with com­mu­nal bench seats), over­sized ri­cepa­per lanterns and arty in­stal­la­tions of steamer bas­kets, white bowls and china spoons. No one seems to mind shar­ing ta­bles; it’s a case of line up, fuel up and make a quick and con­tented get­away.

The menu has pic­tures of the var­i­ous dumplings on of­fer; aside from the sig­na­ture pork variety, there are prawn and pork com­bi­na­tions shaped like cres­cent moons, a de­li­cious veg­e­tar­ian op­tion with crunchy greens and clas­sic yum-cha style of­fer­ings such as doughy buns, in­clud­ing dessert fill­ings of black se­same, sweet taro or red bean paste.

The dumplings, their edges so per­fectly pinched you’d swear they’d been ma­chine-pleated, have an elas­tic spring to them but no hint of stick­i­ness. They can be popped in as a sin­gle mouth­ful af­ter dip­ping in a sauce one mixes at the ta­ble: two parts Chi­nese vine­gar, one part soy sauce, mixed into shred­ded ginger in a tiny dish placed at each set­ting.

The wait­ers show us the drill: pop the sauce-dipped xiao long bao on a china spoon, lightly pierce it with a chop­stick to re­lease a squirt of fra­grant broth, then slide it down the hatch.

There are also stir-fries and clas­sic Chi­nese menu items, in­clud­ing a glo­ri­ously fluffy fried rice mixed through with strips of fried egg. But it’s the dumplings that are the lure for Syd­neysiders, with up to 5000 a day be­ing turned out, and best ac­com­pa­nied by Shang­hai Beer, with its faint tones of cider, or freshly pulped juices. (Try the foamy pear or ly­chee and mint.)

And it would be re­miss not to men­tion Syd­ney’s wellestab­lished Tai­wanese restau­rant, Blue Eye Dragon at Pyr­mont, where Muriel Chen and her mother Jade, a for­mer Taipei restau­ra­teur, serve such exquisitely translu­cent and de­li­cious dumplings that reg­u­lars have de­manded they be made avail­able in frozen take-home bags. A pack of 30 pork costs $25; it’s $35 for prawn or $30 for a mixed bag.

One of Syd­ney’s less-her­alded food bar­gains, they last for months in the freezer. We are ad­dicted to Blue Eye Dragon’s prawn variety, in par­tic­u­lar, al­though have never donned sur­gi­cal whites to cook them.

Check­list

Din Tai Fung, Level 1, World Square, 644 Ge­orge St, Syd­ney. No book­ings. (02) 9264 6010; www.din­tai­fung.com.tw. Blue Eye Dragon, 42 Har­ris St, Pyr­mont. For book­ings: (02) 9518 9955; www.blueeye­dragon.com.au.

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