I’ve had the distinct pleasure of hitting a number of xiao long bao (XLB) establishments, from Melbourne’s HuTong Dumpling Bar to Manhattan’s Joe’s Shanghai. And finally, after today, I can add the well-trodden Din Tai Fung in Sydney to the list. It was an impromptu decision, following a much-needed yoga session in the city that conjured up the necessary soup dumplings cravings. I didn’t care that I was wearing running shorts and a sweat T-shirt on a trendy Thursday night; I wanted my XLB fix, dammit, and I was going to have it even if the fashion police got in the way.
Even with the hype subsiding to managing levels, Din Tai Fung is still pulling in the crowds. I wasn’t up to speed on the system, so I wandered wide-eyed through the throngs of people standing outside the restaurant, and upon approach was urgently ushered by the hostess to come forward, quickly state my dining status (solo) and then had an ordering sheet pressed into my hand. I then scavenged for a pen and went with the assumption that I had to order from the listing, despite a lack of posted prices.
The benefit of eating by yourself is that while the masses are waiting for their tables, you get escorted inside in minutes. Even so, the line seemed to be moving quickly, something I really appreciate after the experience of being stuck in New York’s Chinatown for 1.5 hours while waiting to get into Joe’s Shanghai. Mind you, it did give me time to squeeze in a decent haircut in an alleyway for just $6 bucks.
At Din Tai Fung I bee-lined for the XLB, ordering the larger option of eight pork-filled soup dumplings, plus a pork bun to fill in the gap in my appetite. And as soon as they arrived, the comparisons with HuTong’s XLB began (and I had already ruled out Joe’s Shanghai’s version, as the overly thick skins made them inferior to our Australian contenders). The first noticeable difference was size, with DTF’s dumplings being smaller than HuTong’s, but both provided good eating experiences and could be picked up – very carefully – with chopsticks. So far, it was a 1-1 draw.
Then came the thickness of the skins. Again, both dumpling houses produce beautifully tender and thin skins that just manage to hold together (mostly, but I take the blame for any clumsy breakages) while the bags are nimbly pried from the bamboo steamer. The score? A 2-2 draw. It wasn’t until it came to the bag chomp and slurp that I found my winner. Din Tai Fung’s XLB has a lovely broth, but unlike HuTong, there is still a hint of the gelatine in the soup. HuTong’s by comparison has a cleaner broth. So at my table, my scorecard read DTF 2, HuTong 3. Melbourne wins this one – at least until I hit Shanghai Tang in Sydney’s Chinatown and comb Ashfield for more contenders. And, well, living in Surry Hills means that Din Tai Fung is geographically desirable, and with terrific XLB just shy of HuTong’s greatness, it’ll still feature nicely among my roster of local Asian favourites like Spice I Am, Mamak and Pasteur.
And there was another highlight at Din Tai Fung: my virgin taste of dan dan noodles, which I have become intimately familiar with after reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s food tome on China, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. I was mostly full when I noticed them on the menu, reading it in detail to occupy myself between my deliveries of bamboo baskets. Excited by my find, I ordered the spicy version – this being a Sichuan speciality, how could I not? The thin wheat noodles arrived sprinkled with sesame seeds and sliced green onion (“shallots” for those still clinging to Australia’s confused naming regime) and in a lovely thin brown sauce. Somehow despite reading that peanuts are a key ingredient, I glossed over that fact. So, admittedly, there was more texture in the sauce than I expected, but the taste was terrific and comforting – like meeting an overseas penpal after writing to one other for ten years. My only gripe was that it lacked any true heat; I walked away from the bowl with nary a sniffle or moistened cheek. My guess is that this was a mellowed Taiwanese idea of spice (DTF is Shanghainese in origin, but based in Taiwan), so I’ll have to wait until I lead my food tour through China in April to taste the real thing in Chengdu. I’m counting the days already.
Din Tai Fung, World Square, 644 George St, Sydney, (02) 9264 6010.