In dumpling paradise
It takes surgical precision to make the perfect xiao long bao, writes Susan Kurosawa
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.
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.