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Taiwan | 09 December '18
21 grams of filling + 18 pleats and so much more...
Taiwan is known for the best dumplings in the world. It’s Din Tai Fung that perfected the art, the science of the perfect soup dumpling (aka xiaolongbao or XLB for short). That’s why this family-owned dynasty now attracts long lines at their locations around the world. Here’s the little-known history—now wildly successful, Din Tai Fung actually began as a failed business in a completely different industry. Plus, practical tips on how to make the most of your visit to a Din Tai Fung in Taiwan...or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
Many of the smiling, doting team are impressively multilingual; their name tags feature country flags representing all of the languages that each team member speaks. We met several servers who had been with the company for five, even ten or more years—impressive tenures when it comes to the high-churn hospitality business. The best performers are offered opportunities for career advancement, often roles in shops that have opened abroad. One of the proud team members came over to show us a polished, gorgeously shot and edited internal video of Tom Cruise’s visit.
In order to ensure the dumplings are formed in the most ideal of conditions, the dumpling makers work in a refrigerated environment. Each dumpling holds exactly 21 grams of filling plus or minus 0.4 grams margin of error—they actually weigh each chunk of filling! Each dumpling is formed with precisely 18 folds. This number 18 has great significance, because when you say the individual numbers in Mandarin “1” and “8” (yao ba 幺八), it sounds like yao fa 要发, which means ‘to get rich.’ Chinese-speaking people do swoon over their homophones and anything that sounds like luck, longevity or money-making. (It’s no wonder the Yang family is so prosperous!)
Each dumpling comes out identical the skin impossibly thin like fine silk. Yet, when you pick up the dumpling, the bottom peels off from the steamer basket magically intact. Every single XLB reliably holds a large volume of broth with meaty, umami and fragrant filling.
Carefully pick it up with your chopsticks from the top nubbin where the folds come together and place it gently on your soup spoon, which will catch any spillage. Dip in vinegar, then adorn with your desired amount of slivered ginger. (Note: For my first XLB of the meal, I usually like to eat without condiments to savor the purity.) Purse your lips and bite a tiny hole to suck the soup out. Then devour the rest but in a timely fashion, because these are meant to be eaten piping hot.
The impatient will pop the entire thing in all in one bite, but beware, you do risk burning the inside of your mouth. This is the preferred method of many seasoned pros, myself included. I learned on this shoot trip that the travel show host chef Andrew Zimmern plus our local expert friend restaurateur Henry Hsieh agree with me for eager efficiency’s sake.
Din Tai Fung didn’t start out in the soup dumpling business. It didn’t even begin as a restaurant. It was originally a retail cooking oil business founded by Yang Bingyi in 1958. The business thrived at first but then decades later took a downward turn, when cooking oil became widely available, thus changing the way people purchased it. The business continued to decline. Then, in 1972, at the urging of a restaurateur friend, Yang turned half of the Din Tai Fung oil shop into a restaurant where he and his wife started selling steamed dumplings or xiaolongbao.
When the NYTimes named Din Tai Fung one of the “top ten gourmet restaurants in the world” in an article published January 17, 1993, world expansion was inevitable. Din Tai Fung was the only Taiwanese or Chinese restaurant on that list. Arguably, this recognition was the beginning of when Taiwan landed on the map as a destination for global foodies.
Further notoriety came in 2010 when Din Tai Fung’s Hong Kong branch was awarded one Michelin star—a first for a restaurant from Taiwan.
Din Tai Fung now has branches in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Dubai, United States, Thailand, UK and UAE. (My unabashed cry for soupy salvation: New Yorkers like myself are still quietly awaiting one noticeably missing branch to open here. But if you must get your XLB on in NYC, your Journy trip designer may send you to Pinch in Soho, opened by a former Din Tai Fung dumpling maker.)
Fun fact: The original calligraphed sign that reads Din Tai Fung Oil Retail still hangs near the front entrance to the original Din Tai Fung on Xinyi Road, where it’s been for over 40 years.
On our recent #JournyxTaiwan trip back to Taiwan, we brought our crew to two different Din Tai Fung experiences—
While there are several Din Tai Fungs in Taipei alone, the OG Xinyi Road location is where it all started. You can call it touristy. You can call it predictable. You can call it crowded and cramped. But for locals and visitors alike, this is the essential Din Tai Fung. Even if you’re here for a beat, no trip to to Taipei is complete without hitting up the original DTF location.
Protip: Xinyi Road is known as a foodie street, with street food options like noodles and shaved ice right here. So, just put your name down for the (nearly always) long queue and wander and snack around, but with restraint, within walking distance before returning. It’s worth the wait.
This is the glossy Din Tai Fung, housed in the structure that, when erected, was the tallest building in the world. Taipei 101 still today is Taiwan’s most iconic landmark, home to shopping, dining, a private club, an observatory, offices, conference facilities—and a sprawling Din Tai Fung on the ground floor.
Unlike at the OG Xinyi Road location where the kitchen is off-limits, here, everything is on display. Get hypnotized, as we did, by the stark white, soulful yet precise ballet that goes on behind the glass divider as rows of hygiene-masked dumpling makers manifest dozens of perfectly formed soup dumplings, each one conjured up in seconds.
Protip: Certainly, the plentiful retail therapy will help distract your hanger while waiting for your table to be called. Plus, at this location, your Journy trip designer can set you up with dumpling making classes, where you get taken behind-the-scenes and learn how to fold your own XLB. We can’t promise you’ll be a pro after just one lesson. Not to worry, even if your creations aren’t quite up to par, you still get to sit down to plenty of soup dumplings afterward.
While the original pork soup dumpling is still classic and in many ways the best soup dumpling, explore the variations. Try the pork-crab or pork-truffle soup dumpling for an indulgent twist. At the Xinyi Road location, we swooned over a seasonal Chinese loofah squash soup dumpling—this unexpected insanely subtle, earthy, nearly sweet vegetable.
People who get just soup dumplings are missing out. You should come with as many hungry friends and family as possible and order some of everything else that looks appealing to you. Most dishes are excellent versions of themselves, made meticulously in this factory of soulful Taiwanese specialties. Pick from appetizers (the cucumber salad and wood ear mushrooms are musts), dry noodles, soup noodles and spicy wontons. Don’t forget to eat your greens. When in Taiwan, always go for the greens that look the most unfamiliar to you; they’ll be special, likely indigenous—something you can’t get back home.
Henry Hsieh, owner of Longtail restaurant, recommends the pork chop fried rice. Protip: He asks for his fried rice extra jiao, ‘to more of a crisp.’ It’s tossed in the hot wok or pan for longer so as to achieve grains of rice that have an even more pleasurable chew.
Don’t skimp on dessert. Try the taro soup dumpling: taro is a root vegetable indigenous to Taiwan, used in both savory and sweet dishes. If you really only have room for one dessert, don’t miss the oozy chocolate(?!!) soup dumplings—a surprising crowd pleaser, even for the most most skeptical of soup dumpling purists.
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