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On the trail of xiao long bao

A windowed kitchen allows diners to watch chefs at work.

Publication Date : 22-07-2014

 

You don't need a visa to enjoy Din Tai Fung's dumpling delights at Bangkok's Central Embassy

 

Having got Thai lips smacking three years ago with the tasty steamed pork dumplings called xiao long bao at the first outlet at Bangkok's CentralWorld, Taiwan-based restaurant chain Din Tai Fung is now offerings "seconds" at Central Embassy. Fourteen new dishes have been created for the opening.

Timber, granite and marble combine in a splendid interior decor beneath a high ceiling and plenty of windows to lend an airy ambience.

The original Din Tai Fung opened in Taipei more than 40 years ago and soon became famous for its xiao long bao and steamed-chicken soup. The chain now has more than 100 branches in 11 countries. The Singapore-based BreadTalk Group runs the Bangkok's outlets, as it does other food and bakery franchises like Food Republic, Toast Box, the Icing Room and Bread Talk itself.

At both of the Din Tai Fung branches in town you can watch the chefs at work in the windowed kitchen. Dressed all in white, from shoes to face masks to baseball caps, they form an assembly line, though they're making everything by hand. They've been trained to "believe in humans, not machines" as they fashion each and every dumpling manually - and elaborately: There have to be at least 18 folds (or 22 if made by the female chefs "with smaller fingers").

Watching them work quietly and efficiently actually whets the appetite. One of the chefs rolls out a thin disc of dough and cuts into identical pieces of the required weight. The next stuffs in the filling. Another does the fancy pleating, a twist at the top and then into the steamer.

Every table has a leaflet explaining in Thai and English how to eat xiao long bao. You add a vinegar mixture to the dish of shredded ginger, prick a hole in the dumpling, and sip at the piping hot broth. Then you dip the dumpling and a little ginger into the sauce. I personally prefer the "original" unadulterated - hold the dipping sauce - which costs 160 baht (US$5) for six dumplings and 210 baht ($6.50) for 10.

"We look for fresh, high-quality ingredients and the cooking techniques are excellent," says BreadTalk senior vice president Patsy Loo. "We pay particular attention to keeping the flavours authentic so there's delight in every bite. The flavours aren't too strong because we prefer the fresh ingredients cooked simply, since it's healthier."

The original xiao long bao has a juicy minced-pork filling, but there are three new varieties to try.

Before crab season ends on September 14, get the steamed chilli-crab dumplings, which are 40 per cent bigger than the originals. The succulent crabmeat is wrapped in Singaporean-style spicy chilli-and-crab broth. Four dumplings cost 165 baht.

For vegetarians, the steamed assorted-mushroom dumpling (180 baht for six, 225 baht for 10) is a bundle of fungi - oyster mushrooms, shiitake, abalone, white and black eringi and yanagi mutsutake - cooked in truffle oil. It certainly has a unique taste.

For those with a sweet tooth, the steamed sweet-potato dumpling filled with Japanese yam paste will be a treat, though it's not all that sweet.

To whet your appetite, start your meal with morning glory tossed with fragrant sesame (75 baht), which is served chilled. The morning glory is first blanched, quickly enough to retain its crispness, and then combined with sesame seeds and oil. Also cool to the palate is jellyfish salad (100 baht), with carrot and white radish, all marinated in Chinese-style chilli oil. Equally tempting is black-fungus salad (95 baht) tossed with wolfberries and sliced ginger in a slightly tangy vinegar dressing.

On to the hot dishes with stir-fried Chinese cabbage with garlic (200 baht), still crunchy from the wok and only minimally seasoned to maintain the sweetness of the cabbage. Clay-pot chicken wings in Taiwanese-style sauce, served with fragrant deep-fried garlic, ginger slices and basil leaves (350 baht) are a great right combination of salty and sweet. And the deep-fried spring roll (120 baht) is filled with smooth yam paste.

Leave room for dessert because there are many mouth-watering choices. The latest offering is finely mashed yam paste with pumpkin and gingko nuts (110 baht). It's seasoned with scallion oil to bring out the natural richness and sweetness of the pumpkin and nuts, topped with syrup and served either hot or cold.

 

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