A Matter of Taste

In Natalie Babbitt’s children’s classic  The Search for Delicious, a fictional, chapter book kingdom dissolves into civil war over a dictionary entry. At the outset, Gaylen, the young protagonist, does not see the need for battle. “Why don’t you leave Delicious out of the dictionary entirely?” he asks. What follows is his pursuit of the elusive definition of Delicious, a quest to objectively
characterize a word that is wholly a matter of taste.

While Babbitt’s story is frivolous, and geared towards a fourth grade classroom learning to broaden their culinary horizons, the competitive and comparative nature of food is neither completely fictional nor entirely trivial. In many places, locals simply cannot agree on the best place for a particular city’s specialty. In Chicago, deciding where to go for deep-dish pizza is both troubling and exciting. In Beijing, planning an outing for Peking Duck is no easier, with concierges recommending the old, established Quanjude and cab drivers preferring the modern Dadong, a newer, well respected, and similarly upscale restaurant. Duck and deep-dish pizza are famous specialty foods, but not everyday fare. Everyday food, often eaten quickly at home rather than savored with complementary bread and butter, seems to lend itself even more to divided loyalty. Isn’t fried rice best when my mom makes it? How can someone really make the best hamburger? And at the end of the day, only one potato can be the best potato.

  Oddly enough, one establishment’s pork dumplings with soup inside, dominate the xiaolongbao scene in Taipei. Taipei’s restaurant and street food culture is dynamic and unique. With Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese influences amongst others, good food from all over can be found at upscale food courts, corner restaurants, and food stalls at night markets, and around the kitchen table at home. With so many choices, somehow this food-obsessed city fawns over one restaurant, Din Tai Fung, and their xiaolongbao in particular. It’s not some inaccessible, eaten-once-a-year dish, but a relatively common food that has made Din Tai Fung a worldwide phenomenon.

  Din Tai Fung’s founder Bingyi Yang is of humble origins. Born in Mainland China, his first job after moving to Taiwan in 1948 was at a cooking oil business as a deliveryman. A few poor investments from higher-ups later, the business folded and he was left without work. So Yang and his wife started their own cooking oil business, which again after a few years struggled. In order to salvage revenue, they started making and selling steamed dumplings on the side, gradually dedicating half of the shop to the endeavor. One dumpling led to the next.

  Xiaolongbao are not a particularly complex or expensive food to make. Ground pork and a cube of gelatinous broth are wrapped inside a doughy dumpling skin. When steamed, the gelatin liquefies, and then the meal is served. These dumplings are delicate and they take some finesse to eat. With the soup and the soft dough, grabbing the dumpling with chopsticks requires just enough pressure to free the dumpling from the Napa cabbage or cloth that lines the steamer. Too much pressure means soup all over the table. Not enough means no food on your plate. With the dumpling safely in a spoon, the cautious eater will take a nibble, allowing the soup to drain and the rest to cool. Some may add ginger, soy sauce or vinegar to taste. The intrepid eater may wait for the dumpling to cool unadulterated, and then eat it all at once in a single soup-filled bite.

  Din Tai Fung has celebrated this experience of eating  xiaolongbao and elevated simple food from chow to delicacy. In the United States, China and Taiwan, Chinese restaurants either tend to be either a little gritty with a curt wait staff, or stuffy banquet-style restaurants that seem only to serve wedding-or-funeral food. Din Tai Fung manages to pull these ends together, serving food people want to eat in a clean, modern setting with an attentive staff. Din Tai Fung teases the customer by separating the waiting area from the kitchen by glass walls. The cooks systematically pinch the dough together to seal the meat inside in a flurry of steam that sufficiently fogs up the glass and keeps what happens just mysterious enough to keep the hungry entertained. Had Gaylen’s travels taken him across the Pacific, instead of to fantastic forests, caves, and towns, he inevitably would have polled the crowd of eager customers outside Din Tai Fung waiting to be seated and tallied their preferences of taste.

  Tea is served from pots with long spouts, and the waiters and waitresses raise the pot upwards as they pour, creating a precarious stream of hot tea abruptly cut off with a clean flourish of the wrist. With no smoke or mirrors, just steam, and a modern philosophy of serving traditional food, Din Tai Fung has made simple food special. In an era of Asian fusion cuisine in which some top restaurants distinguish themselves by mixing western flavors with the “exotic,” Din Tai Fung has taken the opposite approach, specializing through simplicity and simplifying through specialization. Din Tai Fung has crafted xiaolongbao in such a way that one drinks tea with the dumpling to complement the light flavor, not to wash it down.

  In 1993,  The New York Times ranked Din Tai Fung as one of the world’s top ten restaurants. Since then, Din Tai Fung has brought its xiaolongbao to Japan, Singapore, China, Australia, and two U.S. locations in Seattle and Arcadia in southern California. The once-failing cooking oil shop has turned into an international brand that connotes high-quality, simple, a-little-pricy-but-let’s-do-it food.

  I have eaten at all four Taipei locations. While visiting family in L.A., I eagerly dragged them to the first Din Tai Fung in the United States. While the meal did not disappoint, I left quite puzzled. Arcadia lacked the metropolitan charm of Taipei. I felt like I should be dodging rogue mopeds rather than sauntering through a spacious and flat parking lot. Part of Din Tai Fung’s original charm I remembered was that it was local food that locals so enjoyed, and this international branding felt ineffably forced.

  The characters in The Search for Delicious eventually find resolution to their word problem and decree “Delicious is a drink of cool water when you’re very, very thirsty.” Sure, this is a somewhat didactic move to remind young readers to appreciate what is often taken for granted. Yet, Babbitt also reminds young readers that Delicious is not a holy grail, hidden far away.  Din Tai Fung’s relationship with its local loyal following felt the same way to me. Instead of looking elsewhere to find satisfaction, those from Taipei enjoy this food from their front yard without needing to peek out at the green grasses of other cuisines.

  But who I am to say? As an American fan, I am guilty of the same misgiving I identified in that parking lot. I reap the benefit of xiaolongbao in America, while also lamenting the ideological shortcomings of smart business decisions. If I want to experience the charm of a busy Asian street, all I have to do is go back. Branding has helped this simple food from Taipei find its place in world cuisine, people in different languages from various places all saying to their friends across the table: “Delicious.”